UCLA to build turbine lab

UCLA is preparing to build a new wind turbine research facility in downtown Los Angeles as part of an ongoing push toward sustainable energy.

The lab is the only one of its kind in Southern California. It will focus on developing stronger and more aerodynamic turbine blades.

“The building already exists and has been selected,” said Richard Wirz, director of the UCLA wind energy lab and associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

Now, they just need to build the lab space, he said.

Wirz said that the project is still in the planning phase and that work on converting the facility into a laboratory has not started yet.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power projects it to open in 2010, Wirz said.

The building will be part of a green research center that anchors the north end of Los Angeles’ CleanTech corridor, a four-mile swath of industrial land west of the Los Angeles River and east of downtown.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power owns the land that this center will be built on, but under the recently announced CleanTech Los Angeles partnership, researchers from UCLA, USC and Caltech will come together to work on a number of green projects in the center.

The focus for UCLA research will be on wind turbines, which make electricity by capturing wind energy and converting that to electricity. One of the problems with wind power is that it is an intermittent power source, Wirz said. The blades of a wind turbine are optimized for a certain wind speed, and so if it gets too strong or too weak the turbine will not work nearly as well, he added.

If a turbine can operate more efficiently at increased wind speeds, that means getting a better return on the initial investment of building the turbine. This translates into cheaper wind power, which will drive greater adoption of this technology in the energy marketplace.

According to Wirz, there will be three main components to the facility: a wind tunnel for experimental testing, a computational modeling center to complement the wind tunnel by attacking aerodynamic and structural issues, and a site demonstration component where researchers can compare their prototypes to existing wind turbines and actually test their work in a real-world environment.

“We have a bunch of turbines out in the desert and we have a lot of data on them. Other sites might have a wind tunnel and the computational modeling, but we have the ability to actually test these things in an established wind energy type environment,” Wirz said.

For Wirz, the creation of this lab is a big accomplishment after years of working on renewable energy. Although he spent several years working on plasma propulsion immediately prior to this project, Wirz has been working on renewable energy since the 1990s. “That’s when it wasn’t cool to be working in renewable energy,” he said.

Wirz plans to combine his experience from working in each of those two fields to make the blades of the turbine stronger and more aerodynamic. The lab will research the application of plasma actuators, tiny devices that create a little plasma discharge on the surface of the blade, greatly improving its aerodynamics.

“They function like small physical actuators, which improve the performance of a blade. It adds momentum to the boundary layer of the flow to prevent flow separation,” Wirz said.

The Interior Department set new guidelines for the implementation of offshore wind turbines along the Atlantic Coast, according to a recent LA Times article. Offshore wind power blows harder and more steadily compared to onshore wind power, but presents a number of additional technical hurdles. Furthermore, offshore wind power would also help to avoid the problem of transferring electricity over long distances because the turbines would be much closer to the majority of the large coastal population. The article said that the Pacific Ocean is especially attractive because its winds blow even harder than the Atlantic winds, but current technology does not work there since the waters are so much deeper.

Wirz said that his work with the plasma actuators “will apply directly to the ocean” and that “it’s definitely something we want to look at in the lab.” He added, “After solar, offshore wind is one of the biggest resources we have in California. It would be incredible.”

Wirz also wants the lab to be open to use by UCLA professors and even undergraduate students doing research. High school students will be able to tour the facility, which Wirz hopes will encourage their interest in engineering.

The lab joins a body of recent UCLA research on green power and sustainability. Nurit Katz, UCLA’s sustainability coordinator, points to UCLA’s Climate Action Plan as an immediate example of UCLA’s commitment to sustainability.

UCLA’s green research is often put to use on campus, as demonstrated by the goals detailed in the Climate Action Plan. This all by itself can bring profitability to these projects, Katz said.

“We’re going to be able to meet the state targets for sustainability in a way that will save the university money,” Katz said.

Some of the research done in the wind power lab could eventually take the form of small turbines placed on the tops of buildings on campus, Wirz said.

However, there are not yet any plans to do that, Katz said.

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