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3D printing for new engineered cores
Monday, 30 June 2014

The blades of today?s wind turbines still have a decidedly low-tech material at their core ? balsa wood.

Like other manufactured products that use sandwich panel composites to achieve a combination of light weight and strength, turbine blades contain carefully arrayed strips of balsa wood from Ecuador, which provides 95% of the world?s supply.

For centuries, the fast-growing balsa tree has been prized for its light weight and stiffness relative to density. But balsa wood is expensive and natural variations in the grain can be an impediment to achieving the increasingly precise performance requirements of turbine blades and other sophisticated applications.

As turbine makers produce ever-larger blades ? the longest now measure 75 metres, almost matching the wingspan of an Airbus A380 jetliner ? they must be engineered to operate virtually maintenance-free for decades. In order to meet more demanding specifications for precision, weight? and quality consistency, manufacturers are searching for new sandwich construction material options.

Using a cocktail of fibre-reinforced epoxy-based thermosetting resins and 3D extrusion printing techniques, materials scientists at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have developed cellular composite materials of unprecedented light weight and stiffness.
Because of their mechanical properties and the fine-scale control of fabrication, the researchers say these new materials mimic and improve on balsa, and even the best commercial 3D-printed polymers and polymer composites available.