Blade Dynamics goes super-sized

UNITED STATES: Fledgling UK-based blade manufacturer Blade Dynamics is partnering with American Superconductor (AMSC) to produce lightweight supersized blades in the US by taking over a factory formerly used by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Blade Dynamics, established in 2007, intends to build blades by combining innovative processes and advanced composite technology, for which it has several patents pending. The company believes that as the industry moves towards 10MW machines that require longer blades, current manufacturing methods will be unable to build them light enough for practical transport and use.

Blade Dynamics wants to fill that void but has yet to produce any blades beyond a prototype and is keeping specifics close to its chest. Although its blades could eventually reach 100 metres in length, production will begin at a more conventional 49 metres to fit 2MW machines.

"We're not disclosing anything technical about what we are doing," says Theo Botha, co-founder and sales director of Blade Dynamics. "There is no magic ingredient. But it's like trying to find out what is in Coca-Cola - it's a secret."

American Superconductor (AMSC) invested $8 million for a 25% share in Blade Dynamics, along with a seat on the board of directors. "Our due diligence on the company showed that these guys have a tiger by the tail," says Greg Yurek, founder and CEO of AMSC, which owns and licenses wind turbine designs and provides electrical control systems.

"All of our technologists have gone over all of their technology and test results and we firmly believe in it," he adds. Another minor equity investor is US multinational corporation Dow Chemical.

The prototype blade has passed the rigours of the UK's National Renewable Energy Centre (Narec) test facilities in Blyth, Northumberland.

Previously Blade Dynamics pioneered a process it calls Bladeskyn - an alternative to paint as coating for the surface of blades. "It's a plastic film that protects the composite from the outside environment," Botha says. "It helps blades generate more energy, lasts longer and is much easier to repair."

By the end of the year, the company will move into the NASA facility, which was used for more than 30 years to produce the soon-to-end space shuttle programme's external fuel tanks. The State of Louisiana is providing an incentive package worth up to $30 million, contingent on investment and job-creation milestones that include adding at least 600 employees over the next decade.

The state will also provide assistance with employee recruitment and training for up to two years, while some of the money will be used to fit the factory with new equipment.

Good location

Louisiana is nowhere near where wind turbines are typically deployed in the US, but Blade Dynamics plans to harness the state's natural logistical advantages by shipping from the Gulf of Mexico and barging up the Mississippi River, which gives good access to much of the US. "We will also have excellent rail and road logistics - so the cost of transportation is very attractive," says Botha.

Botha says the Louisiana plant should be fully operational next year but declines to disclose production quotas. "We are not leaking too much information but we would like to be making thousands of blades in Louisiana for distribution in the US and elsewhere," he says.

Botha adds that the company anticipates a UK facility around the North Sea to supply the offshore market.

Massachusetts-based AMSC is hoping to take advantage of the Blade Dynamics technology as it works to bring proprietary wind turbine designs - including 10MW models for onshore and offshore - to market under its Windtec brand (Windpower Monthly, June 2010).

AMSC also provides design and support services to more than a dozen customers in seven countries, which include a significant presence in Asia. Earlier this year the company achieved a 15GW milestone for its core electrical wind turbine components and control systems.

"Our current licensees, such as Sinovel over in China or Hyundai Heavy Industries over in South Korea - they both have their eye on the North American market," says Yurek. "The other way that we think we are going to address the domestic market is to name a few Windtec licensees right here in the United States. We think that there is plenty of opportunity out there."