NSF SEP: Collaborative: Achieving a Sustainable Energy Pathway for Wind Turbine Blade Manufacturing


PI: Prof. Christopher Niezrecki (University of Massachusetts, Lowell)
PI: Prof. Janet Twomey (Wichita State University)


The NSF Sustainable Energy pathways (SEP) Program, under the umbrella of the NSF Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability (SEES) initiative, will support the research program of Prof. Christopher Niezrecki and co-workers at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and Prof. Janet Twomey and co-workers at Wichita State University. The objective of this highly multidisciplinary study is the preparation of new forms of bio-derived materials for next generation wind turbine blades. These blades will be designed with the mechanical performance, economic viability, and environmental life cycle to enable sustainable wind energy pathways. Past research on biobased polymers has focused on thermoplastics that do not have the creep resistance and other properties necessary for significant structural applications. This project will focus on thermoset epoxies that are only a single reaction step from vegetable oil (a consistent, readily available feedstock), thus minimizing energy use and cost. Additionally, by developing an understanding of molecular-level thermal reworkability in composites through the inclusion of an appropriate catalyst, this work will enable a new end-of-life paradigm. Scaled test structures with mechanical and dynamic features comparable to utility-scale wind turbine blades will be constructed and their performance evaluated. Using these results new materials will be able to be quickly assessed without full scale tests. An environmental life cycle impact analysis will highlight areas for improved sustainability in the design of the biomaterials and end-of-life options for blades. An economic evaluation along with life cycle cost and toxic use analyses will provide a comparative economic evaluation of bio-derived alternatives to traditional petroleum-based thermosets along with the impact of converting to bio-based wind turbine manufacturing on job creation, education, and skills requirements.

With an expectation of growth in the U.S. to 170,000 turbines in 2030, wind energy represents a renewable resource to address 20% of the U.S. energy demand. From a systems point of view, this growth creates a need to dispose of well over 34,000 blades/year (each as large as 62 m long and weighing 18 tons) in the U.S. and approximately five times as many globally. Presently, nearly all of these blades are manufactured from glass fiber composites containing large amounts of petroleum-based epoxy resins and at their end of life they are very difficult to recycle. Spent blades are either land-filled, burned to extract heat for co-generation of electricity, or cut up and used as filler in construction. This project will determine how to effectively replace existing petroleum-based epoxy resins with bio-based materials that are reworkable so that they can be repaired and/or their materials can be reused at the end-of-life. Concurrently the impacts of the new blades on the economy, wind industry, environment, and society will be studied. Both graduate and undergraduate students will be exposed to technical and nontechnical problems important to industry, and a strong outreach effort will be implemented using demonstrations to motivate the interest of women and K-12 students in science and engineering. Wind Energy Research Workshops will be organized to serve a national audience of industry participants, scientists, and engineers.

This project will develop a transformative approach to the manufacturing of composites in general and wind turbine blades in particular. This work will lead to composite manufacturing that is more sustainable and less reliant on petroleum-based resins while enabling effective composite repair and recycling. The research will impact not only the wind industry, but many other areas of composite usage.

Wichita State University Team

PI: Janet M. Twomey, PhD, Associate Dean for Graduate Education, Research and Faculty Success, College of Engineering and Professor Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering, Wichita State University

Dr. Twomey has been on the faculty of engineering Wichita State University since 1994. Dr. Twomey holds a Ph.D., MS. and BS from the University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, in Industrial Engineering.  She also holds a BA in Sociology from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA.  Her areas of expertise are in sustainable engineered systems, computational intelligence and statistics. She received a National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early CAREER award for her work in neural networks and sparse data sets.  Dr. Twomey’s research funding totals over $5 mil.  The majority of which has come from NSF and the Department of Energy for work in sustainable manufacturing, green wind energy, and sustainable healthcare. Dr. Twomey has co-authored over 70 peer reviewed journal articles and conference proceedings.  She was a Program Officer for Manufacturing Enterprise Systems at the National Science Foundation from 2001 to 2004.  In 1999 she was an A.D. Welliver Boeing Faculty Summer Fellow. Currently she is the Academic Vice President for Board of Trustees, Institute of Industrial Engineering.

CoPI: Michael Overcash, PhD, Affiliate Professor, College of Engineering, Wichita State University and former Bloomfield Professor of Sustainability in the College of Engineering.

Dr. Overcash has developed an in-depth national research program in two distinctive areas.  One is life cycle inventory research, specializing in new life cycle inventory (lci) tools, with the design-based methodology, and a resulting database of about 1,000 chemical and materials manufacturing plants.  He has extended the unit process life cycle inventory (UPLCI) concept to the taxonomy of machines used in macro structure-building found in manufacturing of parts, assemblies, and products.  He is leading a national effort to engage university faculty developing these uplci and engaging industry in verification.  The second area is sustainability research.  In this field, he has helped organize the various models for sustainability used in research and sought the common characteristics of these models.  Dr. Overcash led the effort at Hawker Beechcraft for the first corporate sustainability program in general aviation.  Professor Overcash graduated in Chemical Engineering with a B. S. from North Carolina State University, an M. S. while on a Fulbright Scholarship at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, and a Ph.D.  from the University of Minnesota.

Evan Griffing, PhD, Research Scientist, Wichita State University

Dr. Griffing received a BS from Cornell and a PhD from Northwestern in Chemical Engineering. He has contributed to life cycle assessments in many areas including chemical, pharmaceutical, textile, agricultural, and biofuel industries, and he has focused on life cycle tool development.  Evan is currently the Director of LCA at Environmental Clarity, which is a consultancy that does life cycle assessments and maintains a large life cycle inventory database with a focus on the chemical industry.

Eric Vozzola, Research Assistant, Wichita State University, Life Cycle Assessment Engineer, Environmental Clarity

Eric received a BS Chemical Engineering from University of Florida in 2011. He specializes in transparent life cycle assessment. He has contributed to life cycle assessments for a wide variety of products, including wind turbine blades, woven and nonwoven garments, carpets, and pharmaceuticals. He has generated life cycle inventories for over 130 products and processes, including synthetic and natural-based chemicals, metal ores, epoxy resins and hardeners, glass and carbon fibers, and unit processes for metalworking.