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The Road to the Future Goes Through Clarkson

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Picture a butcher block 25-feet long, shaped like an airplane wing—one end is bolted to the wall. At first glance, it appears to be a floating piece of modern art.

It’s a wind-turbine blade, made for Clarkson by TPI Composites. Built with a balsa wood core and wrapped in clear fiber glass and carbon fiber layers, it’s unpainted to let researchers here see its inner structure.

“This is a reference blade,” says Dan Valyou, the blade test facility manager and graduate student who recently spent a few days hoisting and mounting it to a lab wall. “It’s a wind-industry standard. Engineers already know how this blade responds to stress. So we’ll apply different kinds of tension and compression and we’ll use these test results to calibrate this facility.”

He’s referring to a massive space in Clarkson’s Center for Advanced Materials Processing. After testing the reference blade and calibrating the lab’s sensors, the results will be used to certify the facility, which will then conduct stress tests on new blades from manufacturers all over the world.

“This lab,” Valyou says, “will become one of only three facilities in the United States able to do this kind of work. We are the only university that could conduct tests like this.”

That’s partly due to Clarkson’s professors and students who focus on the mechanical and structural engineering specific to wind turbines. It’s also due to the lab’s “reaction walls,” six- and five-feet thick. They’re solid concrete, as is the four-foot-thick floor they sit on. And all of them have massive bolts running through them.

Valyou holds up a doughnut-sized piece of hardware. “We tighten these nuts to put 750,000 pounds of pressure on each square inch of these walls,” he says. “By engineering the walls to these standards, we can apply tremendous amounts of pressure on the wind-turbine blades.”

Pier Marzocca, professor of mechanical and aeronautical engineering, and Kerop Janoyan, professor of civil and environmental engineering, are two of the faculty members overseeing this project. Marzocca says this facility and the reference blade present tremendous opportunities.

“This lab and this blade,” he says, “will allow Clarkson students to conduct research at the highest level—the kind that simply can’t be done elsewhere. Measurements are taken with sophisticated sensors and hardware that measure stress and flexibility at hundreds of points along the blade. This facility makes Clarkson a national and international leader in this kind of work.”

Once the lab is certified, students will test manufacturers' new blades. Valyou points to the massive reaction walls and the thick, sensor cables attached to them. “Because of these,” he says, “we can put 800,000 pounds of pressure, per foot, on a blade. We’ll test to failure. That means we’ll snap those new blades like a toothpick.”

And then he’ll send the data back to the manufacturers, who will use Clarkson’s test results to make wind-turbine blades that are stronger, lighter, quieter and more efficient.

Looking at the wood grain and carbon fiber of the reference blade, Valyou adds, “Clarkson’s commitment to this project gives us a big role in wind power. This campus is now an important point on the road to the industry’s future.”

Preparing to mount the test blade on the wall in Clarkson's Center for Advanced Material Processing (CAMP)