UMaine center to use $3 million wind energy grant for robotics manufacturing

Posted Sept. 05, 2011, at 2:34 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 05, 2011, at 2:51 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — A $ 3 million federal grant to a University of Maine research center will be used for another piece of the puzzle in building windmills to harness the bountiful winds off Maine’s coast to produce energy.

Habib Dagher of the Advanced Structures and Composites Center said the center will use the money for a lab station, or “cell,” where prototype blades and towers will be made out of experimental materials to withstand offshore stresses.

“This is a cornerstone function of the lab,” Dagher said.

He said “a very large robot” that can weld, paint and perform other mechanical work will be used in building the windmill parts. Shaped like a large, inverted U, the robot will travel up and down a 200-foot track to apply composite fabrics to the parts.

The center, at the Orono campus, was expanded to include the Offshore Wind Laboratory. The lab formally opens in November to advance the work designing, building and testing deep-water, wind-generating technology in which the center has attained a national leadership role.

The center has six components in various stages of completion. They include structural testing, a 12-foot-deep hydrodynamic pool where wind and wave action is replicated, and a section where blades are subjected to the kinds of wear and tear they would have to endure off the coast.

The Economic Development Administration grant, announced last month, will help create the center’s “robotics manufacturing cell.” Dagher said the new cell will help bring all of the design, engineering, manufacturing and testing functions to a single place, increasing efficiency and saving costs.

Researchers will use the strongest, most resilient and weather-resistant composite materials that can be created so the floating windmills with their giant 200-foot blades can withstand the punishing salt air, stiff winds and the motion of the sea. The monster towers that support the windmills in the ocean will be in the 300-foot range, much taller than their land-based cousins. Full-size turbines, once built, will be about the size of the Washington Monument.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar visited the center last month and promised to move swiftly to identify wind energy zones offshore where permanent structures would be located. A UMaine-led consortium of businesses, universities, nonprofit groups and utilities plans to deploy its first offshore prototype next year.

Salazar said Maine “isn’t playing around for second place” in developing offshore wind power.

The consortium’s goal is to generate 5 gigawatts of power by 2030 from floating turbines 20 to 50 miles offshore.

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