UMass innovations power the world through wind, water, and air
In the wind
Chances are you’ve seen a modern three-blade wind turbine in action—as of last year there were more than 58,000 of them dotting plains and hillsides across the country, with another 3,000 being installed each year. According to the American Wind Energy Association, the amount of wind energy generated in the United States has more than tripled over the last decade, becoming the largest source of renewable energy in the nation. What you may not realize is how instrumental UMass has been in the development of this technology.
Although the WF-1 was small compared to today’s turbines, when it was completed in 1976 it was the largest operating wind turbine in the U.S. It also introduced many new elements that are standard on wind turbines today: three fiberglass blades, near-optimal blade shape, blade pitch regulation, variable speed operation, and computer control. Considered by many to be the first modern turbine produced in the United States, the WF-1 now resides at the Smithsonian Institution.
Today, UMass continues its legacy of educating students to become innovators and leaders in the field of wind energy. The university’s Wind Energy Center (WEC) has become a national leader in wind energy education, academic research, and service to government and industry. In addition, the WEC’s interdisciplinary educational program includes undergraduate and graduate classes that educate students in engineering, environmental science, and social science, and prepares them for careers in the booming wind energy industry.
Our success lies in our ability to find solutions that can’t be solved by a single person, but that require people from different disciplines working together.—Matthew Lackner ’08PhD
Unlike a fixed-bottom turbine with a foundation that’s attached to the ocean floor, a floating turbine sits atop a platform that is anchored to the sea bottom. It has the benefits of being less costly to install, less disruptive to wildlife, and more accepted by the public (out of view for coastal residents). But the dynamic system of a floating turbine presents its own challenges. “Instead of a fixed platform, you have a platform that can move in three dimensions and rotate in three dimensions,” says Lackner. “It has six additional degrees of freedom. It’s harder to model, and it could impact reliability.”
By bringing in multiple disciplines to study floating turbines, the WEC is helping advance the development of this growing renewable technology that will be present in our oceans in the coming years. “We’re one of the few programs in the country that has such a broad and diverse set of experts all interested in wind,” says Lackner. “I think our success lies in our ability to find solutions that can’t be solved by a single person, but that require people from different disciplines working together.”
One of the biggest challenges with offshore turbines is how they interact with water. Another group on campus is building a new lab to address the water side of wind power. Professor and Endowed Chair in Renewable Energy Krish Thiagarajan Sharman joined the College of Engineering in 2018, and one of the first things he did was to start building a lab for renewable energy.
An expert on marine renewable energy and energy-producing offshore structures, Sharman focuses his studies on harvesting energy from waves in marine environments. The new lab will allow him to create waves and currents in a controlled environment, which will help offshore wind researchers test new equipment designs in more realistic conditions. Bucking the trend toward computer simulations, this physical lab will feature a combined wave-current flume consisting of a 6,000-gallon water tank and a commercial-grade marine thruster. This type of thruster—a two-propeller assembly driven by a powerful 75-horsepower motor—is typically used to run boats, and this one, custom built by Seattle-based Western Marine Electronics (WESMAR), is the first one that the company has sold to a lab. The tank and conduit assembly are currently being designed and built with the support of Alden Research Labs, a coastal engineering consulting company based in Holden, Massachusetts.
Researchers will be able to generate waves from either end of the facility through a modular wave maker and beach absorber system that has been designed and built in-house. “This facility is unique in that it can simulate tidal environments with waves and currents in line or opposing each other,” says Sharman. “We can do this by moving the wave maker from one end of the tank to the other.” Sensors, high-speed photography, and laser illumination capabilities will allow researchers to gather many types of data. To date, there are no commercial wave energy converters providing power to the U.S. electricity grid. But the new lab, currently under construction in Gunness Hall, will allow a model to be tested as part of Sharman’s work with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Out of thin air
A recent collaboration between researchers in the electrical and computer engineering and microbiology departments seems like science fiction—but it’s real. The laboratories of electrical engineer Jun Yao and microbiologist Derek Lovley have developed a device that uses a natural protein to create electricity from moisture in the air, a new technology they say could have significant implications for the future of renewable energy, climate change, and medicine.
We are literally making electricity out of thin air.—Jun Yao
They call the device an “Air-gen”—or air-powered generator—with electrically conductive protein nanowires produced by the microbe Geobacter. The Air-gen connects electrodes to the protein nanowires in such a way that electrical current is generated from the water vapor naturally present in the atmosphere. “We are literally making electricity out of thin air,” says Yao.
The new technology developed in Yao’s lab is nonpolluting, renewable, and low cost. It can generate power even in areas with extremely low humidity, like a desert. Unlike other renewable energy sources, the Air-gen does not require sunlight or wind, and “it even works indoors,” says Lovley.
The device consists of a thin film of protein nanowires that rests on an electrode, while a smaller electrode that covers only part of the nanowire film sits on top. The film adsorbs water vapor from the atmosphere (a thin layer of water molecules clings to the surface of the film), and a combination of the electrical conductivity and surface chemistry of the protein nanowires, coupled with the fine pores between the nanowires within the film, establishes the conditions that generate an electrical current between the two electrodes.