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Blade Runner
Engineering the next generation of turbines for wind energy
Three small model wind turbines

Lackner is working with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Vestas, a wind technology manufacturer, to more efficiently plan and site wind farms.

As wind energy technology has seen a dramatic reduction in cost over the past decade and is now competitive with nuclear and fossil fuels for electric power generation in many regions, issues of efficiency, reliability and grid-penetration remain, especially offshore. UMass Amherst mechanical and industrial engineer Matthew Lackner is working with stakeholders around the country—the UMass Wind Energy Center, the Department of Energy, and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center among them—to address the technical challenges necessary to bring affordable wind energy to market.

The UMass Wind Energy Center, a leading wind energy research institution since 1972, is what drew Lackner to UMass Amherst a decade ago—it was one of the few institutions offering programs focused solely on wind energy. Now, as a member of the center and an executive faculty advisor for the campus’s federally funded IGERT (Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship) Offshore Wind Energy program, Lackner is researching the next generation of offshore wind turbines.

An expert in wind turbine aerodynamics and structural control, Lackner is employing his skills in partnership with the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center’s Wind Technology Testing Center (WTTC). The WTTC was the first U.S. facility capable of testing large-scale turbine blades (up to 90 meters in length). Using WTTC funding, Lackner is working with mechanical and industrial engineering colleague Yahya Modarres-Sadeghi to test the limitations of flexible blade production—a critically important factor for wind technology manufacturers. Lackner explains that lighter, more flexible blades have benefits: they keep costs down and help with ease of installation. There is a fine line and technical challenge here, however, as dynamic instabilities in flexible structures can cause such intense vibrations that wind turbines can fail if made too flexible. Using wind and water tunnel testing facilities here on campus as well as numerical analyses, Lackner and Modarres-Sadeghi are developing a deeper understanding of the technical challenges.

Matthew Lackner, Mechanical and Industrial Engineering
“We’re trying to better understand the stability limits of blades,” Lackner says. “And how you can design them to avoid those instabilities but make them as light, inexpensive, and flexible as possible.”

As a way to mitigate unsteady aerodynamic loads, reduce blade vibrations and ensure their long-term viability, Lackner and Modarres-Sadeghi are exploring the use of smart rotor control. An airplane blade, for example, is equipped with ailerons—devices that control aerodynamic loads. Lackner and Modarres-Sadeghi are investigating similar mechanisms to reduce the impacts of wind gusts on turbine blades.

In a project funded by the Department of Energy, Lackner is working with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Vestas, a wind technology manufacturer, researching strategies to more efficiently plan and site wind farms. Every wind turbine generates a wake—a cylindrical vortex jutting downwind of the structure. Wakes, he explains, can be problematic for wind farms as they can hinder the efficiency of surrounding turbines. Lackner is working on wake models that industry can use to optimize the position, layout, and control of turbines, taking into account the inevitable wakes that are generated.

Lackner is also researching ways to make offshore turbines more viable.

“There’s enough offshore wind within 50 miles of the U.S. coast to easily power the entire country,” says Lackner. “Probably, a couple times over. There’s just a gigantic capacity for offshore wind.”

Transmission of on-shore wind energy has been an issue in turbine siting, so a more feasible offshore strategy would open new doors for wind energy in the U.S. Lackner is focusing on offshore wind turbine design strategies that could render them less costly to produce, install, and maintain, such as floating offshore turbines. While deep-sea turbine installation can be extremely costly, floating turbines could enable on-land assembly. Floating turbines, however, present a host of technical issues that Lackner is working to address.

“It will be a few more years before it becomes a large-scale commercial opportunity,” Lackner says. “But that’s why it’s fun to do this research. They’re just different and a problem more complex than a typical offshore wind turbine.”

With a background in the aerodynamics of gas turbines since his graduate studies at MIT, Lackner is committed to applying his skills to sustainable energy and sharing his knowledge and passion with his students—the next generation of clean energy leaders.

Amanda Drane '12