The US Department of Energy wants to step up its wind energy game in a big way. And I mean big. Sandia National Laboratories has been tasked with the challenge of designing an offshore wind turbine that can spin out 50 megawatts of carbon-free juice — using 200m blades that harness the fiercest winds on Earth. Take a second to try and picture that. Two hundred metres is just shy of two football fields. It's 30m higher than the Washington Monument. And it's about five times longer than the rotor blades of most offshore wind turbines today, which produce power in the 1-2 megawatt range. (Japan is currently a leader in massive offshore wind structures, with a 7 megawatt beast of a turbine that sports 82m-long blades.)
It sounds damn ambitious, but if we want to start generating wind energy at scale, we need to dream big.
And nobody's better equipped to take on the challenge than Sandia, where engineers have already fleshed out designs for a 13 megawatt turbine featuring 100m-long blades. The new "exascale" turbine would essentially be a bigger version of that model, which includes bio-inspired design elements aimed at channeling the world's most powerful winds.
Concept for the Segmented Ultralight Morphing Rotor, a 50 MW wind turbine featuring 200m long blades that can channel the power of hurricanes, via Sandia
For one, the turbine would stand on a lightweight, segmented trunk that bends in the breeze without snapping. The blades will also be segmented, allowing them to fold in at high wind speeds to minimise the risk of damage. On calmer days, the turbine would fan out to its jaw-dropping, 400m span in order to maximise energy production.
The entire system is similar to a palm tree, which, by shuttering up and facing the wind during hurricanes, can withstand gusts of up to 322km/h. Today, regions of the world that experience severe storms — and the strongest, most energy-rich winds — are dangerous for turbines.
The concept is still in its design phase, so don't expect to see titanic offshore turbines next year. But this could be an important part of our long-term strategy of boosting renewable energy output and weaning ourselves off fossil fuels. And honestly, who wouldn't want their future energy strategy to involve megastructures capable of channelling the power of hurricanes?
Top image via Flickr