Mt. Blue students reinvent the windmill, win recognition for it

May 11, 2012
From the Sun Journal

FARMINGTON — Humans haven’t had much luck reinventing the wheel over the ages, but it took just a few months for students at Foster Technology Center to rethink the windmill.

On April 27, the Foster Tech students finished third in the Maine Wind Blade Challenge, a competition that asked 45 teams from across the state to design and build their own wind blades. The event was sponsored by the Maine Composites Alliance, the Maine Wind Industry Initiative, and the Advanced Structures and Composite Center at the University of Maine at Orono.

The students from Foster Tech succeeded in the competition for one simple reason: Power. While some wind blades fell apart or generated little energy during the competition, Foster Tech’s design generated more voltage than all but one of their competitors.

“As soon as they started spinning, I got excited,” senior Lucas Goodwin said. “Once they started getting going I knew that we were in it to win it.”

Watching their wind blade spin in the breeze was the culmination of months of painstaking tinkering and troubleshooting. Like the other teams in the competition, the Foster Tech students were required to use particular types of foam, fiberglass and resins to construct the wind blades, but given free reign to create their own unique designs.

Over several months, the students worked in the school’s composites workshop — and in physics class — to build the ideal wind blade. By conducting tests on a scale model, Goodwin eventually realized that a design similar to that of a household box fan would generate the optimal voltage. From there, the students began to tweak and twist the blades to catch just the right amount of air.

“If you have the angle really high, it’s going to catch a lot of air, but it’s not going to generate as much power,” senior Cameron Sennick said. “But if you have it flat, it won’t get up to speed quick enough — but it will generate more voltage. So you have to find that happy medium where it gets up to speed and generates the most voltage.”

The school’s composites teacher, John MacDonald, then helped the students construct the wind blades using high-tech composites. By infusing the foam and fiberglass blades with a plastic-like resin, the students created a composite material that strengthened the structure without adding significant weight.

“You introduce a hardening plastic,” Goodwin said. “It utilizes the strengths of each product to give an end product that has properties greater than the whole. It’s kind of like two plus two equals five.”

It’s that material alchemy — perhaps more so than designing an efficient wind blade — that excites Goodwin, Sennick and MacDonald. Next fall, Sennick will study construction management at the Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston. Goodwin will enroll at the University of Maine at Orono, where he’ll study civil engineering and work at the Advanced Structures and Composites Center.

It’s highly likely that Goodwin and Sennick will work with composites in their careers, whether they pursue construction, renewable energy or the dozens of other specialties that have come to rely on strong, lightweight composites. With events such as the Maine Wind Blade Challenge sparking interest in composites, there’s no telling what the future could bring, MacDonald said.

“The composites industry is where they were in the ’70s with laptop computers. It’s an explosion — it’s just growing every year,” said MacDonald, who won the 2012 Teacher of the Year award from the Maine Composites Alliance. “The technology advances every year, and we’re just trying to promote its use and knowledge about it.”