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Pennsylvania State University Wins Big in Las Vegas

July 29, 2014

Members of the Pennsylvania State University pose in team uniforms with their small wind turbine model at the forefront of the photo.

The CWC winning team: Pennsylvania State University

Although breaking wind turbines is a routine part of some wind turbine stress tests conducted by engineers at the National Wind Technology Center (NWTC) at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), having your wind turbine broken by them can be heart wrenching, and it was nearly disastrous for one university team at the Collegiate Wind Competition in May. The team was one of 10 that took up the challenge to create a wind turbine-based charging system for small electronic devices, develop a business plan, and then design, build, and test a small wind turbine as part of the U.S. Department of Energy Collegiate Wind Competition held concurrently with the American Wind Energy Association’s WINDPOWER Conference.

NWTC engineers tested the university team turbines in two 2,000-pound wind tunnels that they designed, constructed, and trucked to the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. The 19-ft long wind tunnels have 4 by 4-foot test chambers designed to test wind turbines with rotors less than 17.7 inches (45 cm) in diameter. The turbines would be subjected to wind speeds that ranged from 5 to 14 m/s and NWTC engineers would test them for durability, safety, cut-in, and power curve and control.

A photograph of a large wind tunnel in an exhibition area. The center of the tunnel is clear so that testing can be easily viewed while the wind tunnel is powered on. A table with several computers on it is in front of the wind tunnel so that operators can control the machine remotely.

One of two Collegiate Wind Competition wind tunnels built by NWTC engineers and trucked to the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas

The day before the competition, each university team was allowed to conduct a practice run in the wind tunnels. For most of the teams, the practice runs revealed adjustments that needed to be made before the competition tests took place the next day. One team adjusted its hub height. Another team needed to reconfigure its design to use the allowable coin batteries instead of AA batteries, as indicated in the competition’s rules. But for the Pennsylvania State University team, the practice run caused a nearly catastrophic failure when the turbine’s rotor detached and two of the turbine’s three blades shattered in the wind tunnel. For some teams, this heart-breaking turn of events, after months of hard work, might have shattered any hope of winning the competition, but the plucky Penn State students were unwilling to throw in the towel. They contacted the company that manufactured the blades for them in Pennsylvania and then some of the team’s members drove through the night to Los Angeles, California, to pick up a new set of blades from a sister company that was able to manufacture them based on the original design. The team members were able to race back to Las Vegas in time to repair and test its turbine, ultimately winning the competition.

As for the two wind tunnels, they were trucked safely back to the NWTC and will be used again in the next competition planned for 2016. Based on the success of the tunnels, nearly every university requested the build schematics or wanted to purchase the competition tunnels for their university programs.

In addition to building the wind tunnels and providing test support, NREL staff helped develop the competition concept, supported competition judging, developed the graphics and competition identity, and helped with project management and media support.