FARMINGTON – In the middle of a workshop strewn with boat hulls, snowboards and a enormous, glossy drag racer, Foster Technology Center students are making wind turbine blades.
The Maine Wind Blade Challenge, an event sponsored by Maine Composites Alliance, the Maine Wind Industry Initiative and the University of Maine system, is in its fourth year. Students design a set of blades for a wind turbine out of composite material, build and test their creations and then pit them against the other 60-plus teams involved in the challenge. Each turbine is tested at the University of Maine in Orono, with the turbine capable of producing the most significant voltage being declared the winner.
Generally, students travel to a business or college associated with Maine’s burgeoning composites industry; combining strong, light-weight materials to create boats, skies, aircraft, machine parts and other products. At the Mt. Blue Learning Campus, in the new E-wing, local students can do it right in their own lab, in John MacDonald’s composites course.
“Most teams travel to do the infusion,” Sylvie Boisvert said. Representing the Maine Composites Alliance, the challenge’s biggest sponsor, Boisvert travels throughout the state to oversee the infusion process, where liquid resin is forced through layers of cloth under a vacuum. This “vacuum infusion” coats the fibers with resin, creating a light, sturdy structure.
“[The students] get to see what the jobs are,” Boisvert said. “What jobs are associated with composites.”
Blade designs are tested in Jake Bogar’s physics classroom, just down the hall. His physics students, which include some members of the local Maine Wind Blade Challenge team, test designs cut from cardboard and milk cartons in front of an enormous fan that dominates a classroom filled with projected graphs and half-completed projects.
“They get to build off the knowledge that my students have gathered in the class,” Bogar said. “This worked, this didn’t.”
The 2011 local team’s project proved the importance of design in rather epic fashion; the blades broke away when the turbine began to spin, whipping them into the air. Bogar plays the video again and students gather to watch.
“It was great,” Bogar said. The challenge organizers gave them another chance to test the turbine. “They were psyched.”
The Wind Storm Challenge, in which students design and market an offshore wind turbine, is held at the same time as the wind blade challenge. Both events are aimed at promoting STEM curriculum: Science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In addition to creating a design and building a wind turbine blades, students must defend their decisions in a presentation.
The competition is just one of many projects MacDonald’s class is undertaking. Last week they were putting the finishing touches on skis and snowboards, hopefully in time to catch the last few days of the ski season, and they’re getting ready to test the remote-controlled boat they built. MacDonald says it’s designed to do 50 mph.
“We’ve got our fingers in so many pies,” MacDonald said. At the wind blade challenge, they’re hoping to equal the effort of Jay’s team, which took first prize last year.
Luke Goodwin, a senior from Jay, was working the vacuum infusion with MacDonald and Boisvert. Composites, Goodwin said, offered students the ability to make anything.
“I like how it can apply to pretty much anything,” Goodwin said. “You can always switch to something else if you get bored.”
The Maine Wind Blade Challenge trials are April 27, on the University of Maine campus.
Resin is drawn through cloth via application of a vacuum.