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Material Uses in Offshore Wind Turbines

Material Uses in Offshore Wind Turbines Abstract: This report describes the use of materials which make


This report describes the use of materials which make offshore wind turbines efficient. Specifically described are the materials in the blades, the power cables, and the mechanical brake pads.


In the search for renewable energy to replace fossil fuels, few resources are more useful than wind energy. Wind is a pollution-free, abundant available resource 1 . To effectively obtain this wind energy, the wind must be steady and away from large obstructions. Because of this, the ideal location for a wind farm is in remote areas, such as on large bodies of water. Putting a wind farm offshore makes it possible to have 80m or larger blades on the turbines, because the landscape is not a concern. This also makes it possible to build turbines over 100m in height, making over 5 MW of power. This does, however, create a new problem, which is that the wind farm is often far from cities, where the energy is needed. These problems were overcome by innovative and traditional engineering.


Offshore wind turbines have the ability to be as large as allowed by the materials, because there are no obstacles in the open water. Having larger turbines leads to a more efficient use of the wind, but it also requires larger components. As seen in figure 1, the blades of the turbine are the largest moving part on the turbine. This means that these blades have far more stress than most other components. This is a concern since fatigue is a leading cause of failure. Over the thirty year turbine lifetime, the blades will need to withstand 4x10 8 stress cycles 2 . To deal with fatigue, engineers needed to find a material that could sustain high fatigue while being over 80 m in length.

To comply with the fatigue levels that turbines must withstand, glass-reinforced plastic (GRP) blades are used. GRP is a type of fiberglass, a composite material, created using a process called pultrusion. Pultrusion starts with natural minerals, such as silica sand, limestone, and soda ash. These minerals are heated to approximately 1400°C to create a molten glass, which is then pushed through a bushing to form glass fibers. The glass fibers are between 4 μm and 32 μm thick. These glass fibers are sized with a solution and bundled to create a mat. This mat can be placed on a mold where a resin is applied. Once this resin cures, it will bond all of the molecules to form SiO 2 -AI 2 O 3 -MgO. This will create the structural material needed to build the blades 3 .

Figure 1: A labeled schematic showing the internal components of the nacelle 13 .
Figure 1: A labeled schematic showing the internal
components of the nacelle 13 .

GRP is an optimal material to use for such a large structure, because it is able to be fabricated in one continuous piece. Without this property the 80 m

blades would need to be built in sections and pieced together, which would create stress points. It is also possible to mold GRP into any shape, specifically an airfoil for the blades. The airfoil of a wind

turbine blade is much like a plane wing, where the leading edge is rounded and the trailing edge

tapers to a point. The airfoil is a large part of the efficiency of the turbine, and it relies on the

material being smooth enough to have air

pass over it without noise. The efficiency

of a blade is dependent on the tip-speed ratio, express by the equation 12 :

turbine blade is much like a plane wing, where the leading edge is rounded and the

This equation, where w is angular speed, R is the rotor radius, and v is the wind speed, gives a ratio of the wing tip speed to the air speed. The ideal ratio is between 6 and 7 in a three-blade turbine. This defines how fast the blades should be rotating with respect to the air speed 4 . From this equation, one can see that the longer the blade is, the slower the rotational speed needs to be, lowering fatigue. Also, because of the low rotational inertia of GRP, the blades can pick up speed very well, and maintain that speed in a gust of wind.

Being on large bodies of water, the blades are continuously subjected to salt in the air. This salt would be destructive to a material like steel that can corrode, but because GRP is a material that is corrosion resistant, the salt does not strongly affect it. Corrosion affects materials that are thermodynamically unstable, such as steel, which contains iron. GRP however, is thermodynamically stable and is also non-conductive which means that it is not susceptible to galvanic corrosion, a type of corrosion due to an exposed electrolyte and a current through corrosive metals 5 .

Power Cables:

Offshore wind farms are located kilometers away from the onshore substations. This means that there needs to be a means of transporting the power generated by the wind turbines to the substations. To do this, high voltage cables are needed, more specifically insulated copper three-core cables. These copper cables need to carry up to 450 kV thousands of meters through the water. To get through the water, the cables are buried about 1.5 m beneath the seabed. The size of these cables is dependent on the amount of power put through them. If a higher voltage is used, then the diameter of the copper cores must be increased. A cable from the Sheringham Shoal offshore wind farm off the United Kingdom coast, for example, uses a voltage of 145 kV as it transports current 21.2 km. To complete this task, two identical cables are used, each containing three cores with cross-sections of 630 mm 2 for 21 km, then widening to 1000 mm 2 for the last 0.1 km on both ends. The widening of the cables offers a larger contact area for the transfer points from the cables to the substations 6 .

Copper is used because of its conductive ability. Copper forms metallic bonds to other copper atoms, which allows

turbine blade is much like a plane wing, where the leading edge is rounded and the

Figure 2: A labeled diagram of an offshore monopile design 14

electrons to move freely. When metallic bonds are formed, it creates a lattice that when a voltage is present, it causes a current to flow through the wires. Copper is a conductor, because of its outermost electron having the ability to move freely through the solid copper. Resistivity is the how much resistance, or opposition to the flow of current, the material has, where the lower the resistivity the better the conductor it is. Copper has one of the lowest resistivities, at 1.68x10 -8 ohm meters, which is just above silver at 1.59x10 -8 ohm meters 7 . This makes silver the ideal conductor; however due to its high cost and low natural abundance, it is not a feasible option for these large cables.

The core cables used for these high voltage lines are class 2 stranded conductors. This means that each copper core is made of at least 12 thinner copper wires that are wound together to create a wire that has a cross-section of 630 mm 2 . These wound wires are important for flexibility, because during installation these cables need to be maneuvered through the J-tube. As seen in figure 2, these J-tubes offer a controlled method to bend the cables and another layer of protection from water. Even though the cables are stranded, the cables could still have a bending radius of about 6 m. This defines the radius of the J-tube, because it needs to be at least 2.5 times that of the cables, so that the cables can be fed through without obstruction 6 .

To protect the copper from the elements around it, it is insulated with a compound called XLPE. This is cross-linked polyethylene, which is a high quality insulator due to its molecular structure. Ordinary polyethylene is a polymer held together by secondary bonds, which makes it an ineffective insulator when heated above 70 °C; however when silane (SiH 4 ) is added, it creates cross-links in the polymer, strengthening the bonds and holding the polymer together for temperatures up to 125 °C. Also the cross-linked polymers give the structure much more tensile strength. This is important for the case of offshore wind turbines because the power cables go through several harsh elements, including water and rough rocks.

Mechanical Brake:

During an emergency or maintenance the blades of the turbine must often be stopped. If this occurs, there are a few parts of the turbine that can slow the blades down, but to hold it in position a mechanical break is needed. This break is on the rear of the gearbox, as seen in figure 3. The mechanical break is a very large disc break. To stop the turbine, the two pads on either side of the disc compress to create the friction used to bring the blades to rest.

The brake pads used on these brakes are non- asbestos or organic brake pads 8 . These pads are made with natural materials, including rubber and glass, and added resins and Kevlar to dissipate the heat 9 . Kevlar is one of the most important materials in the pads. Kevlar is a synthetic aromatic polyamide polymer, which means

electrons to move freely. When metallic bonds are formed, it creates a lattice that when a

Figure 3: Gearbox, Rotor shaft, and Disc Brake assembly before it is installed in the turbine. 15

that it is a plastic, and the structure is a series of ring-like molecules linked together in chains. This gives Kevlar a few unique characteristics, one of which being its ability to withstand heat.

Kevlar does not melt like many other plastics, and doesn’t start to react to heat until about 450 °C 10 . This resistance to temperature change is effective in dissipating the heat caused by the friction of a disc brake.

Along with Kevlar, organic brake pads contain glass fibers, made of the same material used to insulate and keep heat inside of a building. This glass is efficient at dissipating heat, much like Kevlar. Thermal conductivity is a number given to material that is a measure of how well it can transfer heat. Materials such as copper have a thermal efficiency of 398 W/m/°C, which is a great thermal conductor. Glass fibers, however, are thermal insulators, with a thermal efficiency of 0.04 W/m/°C 11 . Being a thermal insulator is a determining factor in the material of a brake pad, because it generates heat from braking. When the brake pads compress they turn the mechanical energy of the spinning disc into heat, which needs to dissipate or else the disc and pads would simply melt.


The use of offshore wind turbines is one of the most efficient renewable energy sources in use today. The engineering of these turbines is remarkable, and it is still evolving. Wind energy is sustainable and harnessing it is becoming less of a challenge with the advancement and availability of materials in modern science. In the quest for the best renewable resources, wind turbines could be the answer.



1: Alternative Energy, Wind Energy,

2: Stress Strain Characteristics of Glass Fiber Reinforced Plastic as Wind Turbine Blade Materials,

6: Offshore Electrical Cable Burial for Wind Farms,


8: Waterline Alternative Energies,

14: Offshore Support Structure,