ORONO, Maine — There’s not much more than a hole in the ground and some fencing on the construction site next to the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center.
Thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce, however, that site soon will become something much greater.
UMaine’s efforts to become a national leader in offshore wind power technology got a huge boost Friday from the commerce department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, which announced it had awarded $12.4 million for a testing facility and laboratory next to the composites center.
The grant will be used for construction costs for the Advanced Nanocomposites in Renewable Energy Laboratory, known as ANREL, where composite materials and components for offshore wind turbines will be developed and tested.
“This is exciting news for the whole state,” Advanced Structures and Composites Center director Habib Dagher said Friday morning shortly after he heard of the grant award from U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. “It’s going to allow us to truly strengthen our leadership role in the area of offshore wind. Without this research fa-cility, we can’t do the research we need to do.”
The grant is being distributed to Maine through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which Collins helped write. The grants announced Friday will support construction of new scientific research facilities at 11 universities nationwide and will launch more than $250 million in new laboratory construction proj-ects across the country beginning early next year.
The $12.4 million is the largest amount UMaine has ever received in a federal grant for building construction. Collins said she has helped secure more than $25 million for offshore wind power research and development.
“This has been a collaborative effort to take advantage of a very exciting development, and that is to make the state of Maine the leader in the entire country in the development of offshore wind energy,” Collins said Friday afternoon.
The Advanced Nanocomposites in Renewable Energy Laboratory is expected to be completed in spring 2011. The state is hoping to have a prototype turbine in the Gulf of Maine sometime that year.
The total budget for the new building is now $17.4 million. UMaine received a $5 million grant from the state in August 2008, which allowed the project to get started. Construction on the 30,000-square-foot site began last month.
UMaine’s new laboratory will be the only such facility in the United States to include complete development capabilities for designing, prototyping and testing large structural hybrid composite and nanocomposite components for the deep-water offshore wind energy industry.
The building, which was designed and engineered by WBRC Architects-Engineers of Bangor and is being built by Cianbro Corp. of Pittsfield, will be an addition to the current 48,000-square-foot Advanced Structures and Composites facility located on the UMaine campus.
Cianbro Corp. CEO Peter Vigue said the new facility represents an investment in Maine’s future as the state undergoes a transformation in the wake of the decline of manufacturing.
“What is happening here at this university, in this laboratory, with this team of people, not only is a reflection on what we’re doing today, but is a way of expressing how this state can move forward and take on these challenges … for many, many years to come,” he said.
In a letter she sent last month to the National Institute of Standards and Technology in support of the grant, Collins wrote that ANREL would add 145 faculty, staff and students to the composites center. Collins said Friday the deep-water offshore wind energy industry eventually could bring in 15,000 jobs and $20 billion in in-vestments to Maine.
Most of the space in the new facility will be used as a large structural testing laboratory with a test stand capable of supporting prototype 70-meter wind blades and mechanical and environmental testing labs.
The building also will include a nanocomposites laboratory where Dagher said researchers will be able to break down wood fiber to nanolevels — the particles would be so small as to be nearly atomic — in order to research how to add the fibers to other materials to further strengthen composites. The resulting composite mate-rial eventually could be used in wind turbine components such as blades.
“It’s breaking down the tree into its nanostructure, changing the surface chemistry so it can be dispersed in a resin,” Dagher said. “The resin will be stronger and more impervious to water.”
That research is already going on inside the composites center.
Dagher, who has made offshore wind technology research one of the composite center’s priorities in recent years, testified in 2008 about wind energy in front of Congress’ Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs. He has estimated Maine has the potential to produce 127 gigawatts of power in deep water — 60 to 900 meters — within 50 nautical miles of the coast.
By comparison, the entire U.S. coastline has about 1,500 gigawatts of offshore wind potential in waters deeper than 60 meters within 50 nautical miles of its shores.
A consortium including UMaine researchers and about 30 businesses and organizations will work on an offshore wind turbine prototype at a site near Monhegan Island, the state announced last month. That consortium, called DeepCwind, recently received an $8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to create the Maine Offshore Wind Energy Research Center, which will be located at the Monhegan site.
Jake Ward, UMaine’s assistant vice president for research and economic development, said grants for construction funds are hard to come by.
“The challenges that we’ve faced at the university over the last two decades is that state funding for the university doesn’t include a lot of money for bricks and mortar,” he said. “The change in the wind has been at the federal level and the stimulus money that has just come on board in the last year. It’s set up programs like this that are specifically for bricks and mortar. Nationwide it’s a challenge to get this fundamental bricks-and-mortar money.”