Eric Loth, an engineering professor at the University of Virginia, began thinking about how he could help with climate-related issues approximately 15 years ago. His big idea was to improve the design of wind turbines.
In the event of a hurricane, palm trees are known for their ability to flex gracefully in the face of strong winds.
In the end, the blustery coastal winds offer maximum energy potential.
Loth kept working on it. Finally, when the Segmented Ultralight Morphing Rotor completed a successful demonstration, he took another step toward making the turbine a reality, which may supply vast amounts of clean wind power for the world.
In the latter stages of a Department of Energy project, SUMR has demonstrated that its highly flexible blades and control system can be adapted to a 25-megawatt power-generating plant, which would be a record in size.
For the first time, Loth and his team publicly demonstrated their successful testing at an international conference in the Netherlands last month.
According to Loth, the six-year study conducted by the DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency went quite well.
That may be a slight exaggeration. Despite an unexpected 110-mph wind and a bomb cyclone, his turbine continued to run for two years.
The SUMR design appears to be a frontrunner in the international competition to optimize offshore wind power generation.
Considering the billions of dollars needed to build wind farms, investors are looking for turbines that can endure at least 25 years and produce the most electricity at the lowest possible cost.
Using the most extended blades possible in the fiercest winds is one approach to do this.
Because of these issues with traditional wind turbines’ blades, they’ve had a hard time gaining a foothold in today’s renewable energy market.
For Loth, the choice was clear: either go big or go home.
Rotors the size of football fields were installed on his vehicle. They were then tested by a multi-institutional research team at Colorado’s National Wind Technology Center in the nearby mountains of Boulder.
For this project, UVA collaborated with the University of Texas at Dallas (UTD), Colorado State University (CSU), Sandia National Laboratories (SNL), and the University of Illinois (UI).
As a team, these organizations developed the concept from a drawing on paper to a working prototype at a scale of 20 percent.
“Extreme-scale,” or giant wind turbines, typically produce 15 or 16 megawatts of power, according to Loth. However, European engineers are currently working on a 22-megawatt design.
Compared to the Eiffel Tower, which stands slightly over 1,000 feet tall, SUMR would be taller.
It’s a significant step forward from 25 to 50 megawatts, but it’s a game-changer for the sector.
According to Loth, the team will publish a paper in a reputable journal showing that a similar design is feasible.
The cost of harvesting energy might be reduced by as much as 20% with a turbine of that size.
Rolls-Royce, Commonwealth Professor and director of UVA’s Fluids Research Innovation Lab Loth, will step down as chair of the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department next month.
As an alternative to other wind turbines, he pointed out the advantages of SUMR.
An aero-elastically flexible downwind design is SUMR’s secret. Loth stated that “typical turbines are upwind.” It’s time to “reverse the script and put them in the wind.”
The segmented and hinged design of the blades and the weight reduction allow for a greater overall length. This reduces the rotor’s bulk compared to its output power.
Aircraft engineering hypothesizes that “saving system mass saves money,” as Loth noted in his remarks.
However, a downwind orientation usually generates certain complications, including noise, wind flow obstruction, and electronic control issues.
Loth asserted that SUMR had triumphed over all three issues.
Our demonstration turbine, he continued, “turns out to be pretty quiet in terms of noise.” In addition, the blades were spaced sufficiently apart to eliminate the tower-shadow effect. Intelligent control systems are also included. I can’t believe how better the software is than it was even a decade ago.”
To fit inside the $6 million budget of the Department of Energy, Loth stated that the project had to be reworked.
He said that sizing up is a simple issue of extrapolation.
Considering the size of the turbines, their final deployment in a decade or more is anticipated to be at least 25 miles offshore.
Residents and vacationers along the coast and migratory birds would be less likely to see the turbines if they were located there.
As far as offshore wind farming in the US goes, “I think that’s going to happen for sure,” Loth said. He expects to see it spread from North Carolina to Massachusetts over the east coast.
Currently, Dominion Energy is attempting to construct a large-scale offshore wind farm off the coast of Virginia Beach.
Grand Challenges Research Investments at UVA are encouraging programs like SUMR, which leverage the university’s greatest minds to come up with innovative answers to some of the world’s most pressing issues.
UVA recently revealed clean-energy research and other efforts to improve environmental resilience and sustainability.
In 2010, Loth joined the faculty at UVA. Because of his innovative turbine design, Popular Science named him one of the “Brilliant Minds Behind the New Energy Revolution” in 2015.
For years, he has credited his collaborators for their assistance in resolving issues and publishing articles that have advanced the project.
Chao “Chris” Qin, now a UVA research scientist, and Vanessa Awate, Michael Jeong, Meghan Kaminski, Carlos Noyes, and Juliet Simpson were among the UVA Ph.D. students that worked on the demonstration project at the time.
With wind, “we are eager to preserve the earth,” Loth added. “Like so many others, we are doing what we can.”
As a West Virginia University aeronautical engineering student about 40 years ago, Loth began working on wind turbine projects.
Additionally, he holds masters and doctorate degrees in aerospace engineering. Pennsylvania State University awarded him a master’s degree, while the University of Michigan awarded him a doctorate.
In contrast to his time at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC, and at other organizations where he worked on wind-related technical projects, he has since moved on to other endeavors.
When it comes to aircraft and spaceship propulsion, his expertise is unrivaled. He has several patents in the US.
He’s come full circle in his professional life, like a turbine. So even though SUMR has the potential to change the world, Loth is cautious about its impact.