Fair wind or foul


In the Port of Antwerp, researchers are set to test the reliability of wind turbine components by simulating extreme weather conditions in the largest climatic chamber in Europe. The chamber is the flagship of the Offshore Wind Infrastructure Application Lab (OWI-Lab), constructed by the Belgian tech industry’s knowledge centre Sirris.

Turbine components are put to the test in extreme conditions at a new high-tech climatic chamber in Antwerp

In the Port of Antwerp, researchers are set to test the reliability of wind turbine components by simulating extreme weather conditions in the largest climatic chamber in Europe. The chamber is the flagship of the Offshore Wind Infrastructure Application Lab (OWI-Lab), constructed by the Belgian tech industry’s knowledge centre Sirris.

The government of Flanders has made offshore wind energy a cornerstone sector by financing the lion’s share of this project and subsidising others such as the Flanders Wind Farm feasibility study (see sidebar).

When the chamber officially opened last week, the cold wave that greeted visitors made it feel like a refrigerator – albeit one that measures 8x10 metres. But although the temperature inside can drop to 60°C below zero, it can also climb up to a scorching 60° above zero within one hour.

“We test the durability of wind turbine components of up to 150 tons, such as gear boxes, that could be installed offshore or at remote locations with extreme temperatures,” explains project leader Pieter Jan Jordaens. In the near future, humidity tests will also be possible. Jordaens: “We want to see it snow in the climate chamber.”

Testing the outdoors from the inside

Hostile climate and weather conditions pose challenges for both the machines and the maintenance teams. If repair works have to be postponed because of the weather, this affects the profitability of the turbines. Examples of locations with harsh weather are the north of Finland, where wind turbines operate at minus 40°, and the desert of India, where temperatures can climb up to 50°. These largely uninhabited areas have plenty of space for wind turbines.

The OWI-Lab provides both large and small businesses rare testing facilities to ensure the viability of their products and reduce the time needed for development. Annually, between 30 and 40 test projects will be performed here. Depending on the size of the components, tests take from one day to two weeks.

Although the climatic chamber is primarily intended for the wind energy sector, other industries can also benefit from its technology – such as the aerospace industry. With the inauguration of the climatic chamber, the activity at the OWI-Lab has really taken off. It was initiated at the beginning of the year, through a cooperation between leading companies in the Belgian wind energy sector (3E, GeoSea-DEME, ZF Wind Power and CG Power Systems) in close collaboration with Agoria – the federation for the Belgian technology industry – and Generaties, the industrial innovation platform for renewable energy technologies in Flanders. The Free University of Brussels (VUB) is responsible for academic research on the project, while keeping in touch with other local universities.

The OWI-Lab has a €5.5 million annual budget to invest in test and monitoring infrastructure that supports wind power R&D throughout the industrial value chain. Apart from the climatic chamber, the OWI-Lab has also invested in Flidar, an offshore meteorological station designed for marine renewable energy technologies such as offshore wind, wave and tidal power. Flidar can operate autonomously for more than six months in demanding off-shore environments. Other focuses are on remote measurement and monitoring systems, plus tools for the efficient operation and maintenance of the wind turbines.

View from the top

The OWI-Lab wants to function as a platform that stimulates both local and European research projects by bringing companies and research partners together. Flanders’ minister-president Kris Peeters spoke at the official launch of the OWI-Lab and took a few minutes to talk to Flanders Today.

The government of Flanders is contributing €4.8 million of the OWI-Lab’s total budget of €5.5 million. Why has Flanders put its weight behind this project?

Kris Peeters: Wind energy is key in Flanders’ New Industrial Policy and for the energy sector of the 21st century in general. We especially back partnerships between large groups of enterprises and knowledge centres, which have the most chance of leading to innovation. With more than 20 companies and knowledge institutions involved in the users’ committee, the OWI-Lab is a prime example. As 150 companies in Flanders are now estimated to be active in the wind-energy value chain, our investment will prove its worth both in the short and long term.

What are the benefits of wind energy?

The advantages are ecological as well as economical. Wind energy does not emit CO2 and is good for our balance of payments as we do not need to import any gas. According to Agoria, the wind energy sector will account for about 9,000 new jobs in Flanders by 2020. As Belgium also pledged to generate 13% of its energy supplies from renewable energy sources by that time, wind energy plays a crucial role.

Does Flanders focus on off-shore wind energy specifically?

Yes, because one-third of our wind energy in the near future should be generated by off-shore wind farms, and Flanders has many international pioneers in this sector. We have to maintain this vanguard position of our enterprises and research centres while the industry is still maturing. In the 1980s, Flanders had a similar reputation in on-shore wind energy but failed to consolidate this position. We are making sure history does not repeat itself.

The Big Picture

The OWI-Lab is part of the Flemish strategy covering innovation in wind energy. Other initiatives launched recently are Flanders Wind Farm, OptiWind and HighWind.

Flanders Wind Farm  A feasibility study is analysing the possibility of constructing a test site for new types of off-shore wind farms off the Belgian coast. The goal is to test new foundations and turbines off shore before they become commercially available. Study results are expected by the beginning of next year. “There is a huge demand for such a site among companies,” according to Freek Couttenier, the project coordinator of Agoria, “as this is the time of the first generation of true off-shore wind turbines. Earlier, on-shore wind turbines were just adapted as much as possible to off-shore conditions.”

OptiWind  This strategic research project of four years, supported by the Flemish Agency for Innovation through Science and Technology (IWT), unites universities and enterprises to optimise serviceability of the next generation of off-shore wind turbines. “For example, we stimulate innovations of wind turbine components, like segmented blades,” says Stefan Milis of Sirris, “because, as wind turbines become bigger, the blades are more difficult to transport.”

HighWind  A new robot makes the installation of off-shore wind turbines less weather dependent.

Fair wind or foul

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