Iowa State selected for $250 million engineering project

Emily Stearney

The Iowa State Wind Energy Manufacturing Lab has been selected to be part of a $250 million plan to create the Manufacturing Innovation Institute for Advanced Composites.

Led by the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and funded by the Department of Energy, this initiative is the most recent in a series of partnerships aimed at improving American manufacturing and innovation. The project includes private companies, nonprofits and universities

John Jackman, associate professor in industrial and manufacturing systems engineering, explained Iowa State’s role in this nation-wide initiative. 

“The goal of this consortium is to focus on the advancement of composites.  Our piece is wind energy,” Jackman said.

Iowa is the second-leading state for wind energy production, according to the lab’s website. Roughly 25 percent of Iowa electricity comes from wind energy.

“Composites are a special class of material. For instance, new air crafts are made almost entirely out of composite material,” Jackman said.  “The reason for that is that they have material characteristics such that they can out perform metals.  They have both strength and light weight.”

These qualities, when applied to wind turbines, would allow for a stronger, lighter blade to be produced, as well as reduce the cost of the blade.

According to Jackman, making a blade for a wind turbine today is not only costly but also time-consuming.  Therefore, the goal is to lower the cost of energy by lowering the cost of producing wind turbines. 

One of the projects Jackman plans to present is to research a way to automate blade manufacturing to increase accuracy and reduce the number of human errors made in the manufacturing process.

“We are working on devices that will automate that process, so we can get that kind of consistency that we need, so there are less problems down the line,” Jackman said.

Huiyi Zhang, graduate student in industrial and manufacturing systems engineering, conducts research in the Wind Energy Manufacturing Lab.

“We want to try and make the manufacturing process more efficient,” Zhang said.

Zhang is also working on improving the inspection process.

“Blades can last for 20 to 25 years, but could be damaged before that,” Zhang said. “I am researching ways to improve the routine inspection of the blades.”

Hairline cracks in the blades can shorten the life of the turbine, which can be costly and waste a large amount of material. It is hoped some of the new materials developed can alleviate the problem.

After collaborating with other universities and businesses, the manufacturing lab will present project ideas to the Department of Energy, and if all goes smoothly, a formal process to plan the projects will begin.

After a lengthy proposal has been made and approved, these projects can take two to three years if no problems arise, not including the time spent planning.

Despite its physical size and the complexity of its projects, the student body should be expecting big advancements from the Wind Energy Manufacturing Lab.