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Wind Energy: Picking Up Speed
April 13, 2011

Professor Wirz, atop the giant wind turbine.

By Matthew Chin

One of the great challenges of the 21st century is converting from a high–carbon, fossil-fuel based energy economy, to one based on domestic resources that are clean and renewable.

A very promising part of meeting this challenge is using energy from the wind. Wind was first harnessed thousands of years ago when humans used it to power sailing ships. In the past generation, towering turbines along wind alleys have provided energy. But the wind energy industry is still in its infancy, holding much potential via new technologies to make it a much more efficient and more desirable part of a renewable energy portfolio.

[1] UCLA mechanical and aerospace engineering assistant professor Richard Wirz is leading several research projects on energy solutions using advanced design and modeling techniques. One major area of his research is in wind energy, a resource that may be ready for a big jump in productivity and efficiency.
“Wind has already proven itself as a viable large-scale renewable energy source, but just like airplane design over the last century, we want to continue to push our engineering knowledge and creativity to develop wind systems that are increasingly capable and economically viable,” Wirz said.

One project is a spin-off of Wirz’s work on plasma thrusters for spacecraft propulsion. Because of the variability of wind speeds, wind turbine blades don’t always have an optimal pressure gradient along their surface. The addition of small plasma actuators along the length of a blade creates an electric field that accelerates ions, and thus the local flow, along the blade’s surface. The induced flow can create a more favorable pressure gradient along the blade for improved efficiency and operation over a larger range of wind speeds.

Wirz is also conducting research on a new approach to blade design for large wind turbines that improves the aerodynamic performance and structural stability of the blades. The design could lead to larger and structurally stronger turbines. In particular, this holds promise for offshore wind energy systems. The concept is being tested both computationally and experimentally. A grant from the California Energy Commission is helping to fund modeling and wind tunnel testing of the new design.

[2] Late last year, Wirz worked out an agreement for UCLA students to have research and training time at a working wind turbine. The 1.5-megawatt turbine is operated by the North American Wind Research and Training Center (NAWRTC), which is run by Mesalands Community College in Tucumcari, New Mexico.
“The UCLA-NAWRTC relationship is exciting and unique since their turbine is specifically available for research and training the next generation of wind energy engineers and technicians,” Wirz said. “This is a wonderful opportunity for students in the UCLA research community to have hands-on experience with a state-of-the-art commercial-scale wind energy system.”

And finally, Wirz is exploring designs for small vertical axis wind turbines that are specifically designed for the urban environment and can generate energy at relatively low and unpredictable wind speeds.

More information on Wirz’ work can be found online at: http://www.wirz.seas.ucla.edu/
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