Maine's first-in-the-nation - and the world statewide high school Wind Blade Design Challenge

By Ramona du Houx - July 3rd, 2009 · 

Gov. John Baldacci talks with Old Town high school students about their wind blade design.
Governor John Baldacci of Maine talks with Old Town high school students about their wind blade design. Photo by Ramona du Houx
Thirteen schools and vocational centers in Maine were participants in the first high school competition in the nation to design the most efficient windmill blade out of composite materials. Some schools had more than one team, creating 26 teams in all, that converged at UMaine’s Field House, equipped with innovative designs and blade prototypes to test on May 15, 2009.

The students received a kit of composite materials from Harbor Technologies, Inc. and OCV Technical Fabrics, both of Brunswick. The guidelines were to build blades no longer than 18 inches within a circle of no more than 42 inches in diameter, working with professionals in the field.

The participants had just nine weeks to research wind-blade design and performance and then build their individual blade-design prototype to be tested at the Advanced Wood Engineering Composites lab at UMaine.

“Maine produces the most wind energy in New England. We will be breaking ground here for the nation’s first wind-blade testing facility that could test blades up to 200 feet. Today marks the first competition in the nation for high school students to design and build composite wind blades. None of these firsts would have happened without Governor Baldacci’s vision,” said Dr. Habib Dagher, the director of the AWEC Center at UMaine. “The four top winners today will be eligible for a research assistant job in our labs. So they can work and attend school here, earning $50,000 over four years. The students should know the stakes are high.”

The competition was developed to encourage students and teachers to explore the use and application of composite materials in the growing alternative energy economy. The objective of the competition was for the students to design a blade that would generate the most wattage.

“The goal is to inspire students to take part in the green energy revolution that’s underway,” said Dagher.

The AWEC Center is a prime mover in creating opportunities for students and businesses to advance through composite technologies. Amongst other projects that the center has been working on is the development of windmill blades and their platforms, with the Maine Composites Alliance, boat builders, state government, and the congressional delegation. This process of turning Maine into a rich, green-energy state started long ago.

“For me, getting involved with composite technologies all started when I met with our boat builders. They showed me this cutting-edge technology, and now they are working with the AWEC center to build windmill blades. Mainers always lead the way with Yankee ingenuity. Three out of five national business awards in innovation went to Maine, in the composite industry, because of this center. A quality education here at UMaine can open the doors to future high-paying jobs. We want you to realize your dream here in Maine,” said Governor John Baldacci before the blade testing, addressing the students. “Today is the next step in positioning the state for growth in this industry — with you. You are our future. You are Maine’s pioneers.”

Gov. Baldacci watches as the first wind blade is tested at the AEWC center
Gov. Baldacci watches as the first wind blade is tested at the AEWC center. photo by Ramona du Houx
With that encouragement. the competition began. Each prototype was measured for three minutes using UMaine’s computer data acquisition system that determined an average continuous wattage during the testing.

The first school to be tested was Old Town. High school seniors Erin St. Peter, Molly Segee, Ryan Gilman, and Chad Paradis attached the hub of their prototype to the measuring device with Governor Baldacci.

The anticipation of over a hundred students, advisers, and parents was palpable.

With the press of a button the governor turned on the windmill and the audience clapped as the blades’ speed grew. It worked. All the prototypes were tested with wind speeds of 15-20 mph to find out which ones produced the most electricity.

The Old Town team and Governor Baldacci stood riveted, watching the results of the test on a projection screen. Being the first team ‘up to bat’ the students weren’t aware how well they performed until much later in the day. In the end, their design generated enough wattage to win third place with a final number of 37.61.

Everyone on Old Town’s team came up with designs. “We tested all of them, and in the end incorporated two designs together,” said Gilman.

Some students were eager to accept the challenge. Senior Damon Turner of Machias Memorial wants to study engineering at UMaine. “It was a fantastic opportunity. I studied different designs online, and together we developed the prototype. It took just as long to carve it as it did to research it.”

Machias Memorial came in second with 42.88.

“The project gave them autonomy. They did independent research, assigned different roles to all the team members and built their design working with the Husson Boat School. It was all accomplished by students in their free time,” said the advisor, Dr. Reeser C. Manley of Machias Memorial, who accepted the challenge because it dovetailed with an alternative energy course that he teaches. “They really pulled together as a team.”

Some blade designs suffered from not being uniform. Chris Pickering and Blaine West from Sumner Memorial High School didn’t have a problem with the aerodynamics and smoothness of their blades, even though they had a five-blade design with three layers of fiberglass. Their fiberglass-composite-and-metal wind blade performed the best with a score of 66.56.

The wind blade challenge winners and a AEWC professor
The wind blade challenge winners and a AEWC professor. Photo by Ramona du Houx

“We used a PVC pipe to get the curves right and to make sure they all were the same,” said West. “We painted it with the Blue Angels’ color scheme, because I saw them both times they came to the state; they were awesome. Hopefully it gave us some lift.”

Both designers initially said they weren’t interested in studying engineering or composites, but after they won and were offered jobs at the AWEC Center as a prize, they began to rethink future prospects. Part of the condition of the prize is that they are accepted to UMaine’s engineering school.

“I like working with wood,” said West. “And composites does that. With this offer I’m definitely thinking about going to college here.”

“I have no idea, what I want to do,” said Pickering. “We’re juniors, but earning $50,000 over four years is something to think about.”

Paul Williamson of the Maine Composites Alliance and the North Star Alliance came up with the idea of the Wind Blade Challenge. “This was the first time students from across Maine leveraged their skills in math and science, as well as their growing knowledge of alternative energy, into a real-world project and competed for the best working design,” said Williamson. “The students worked on site with the leading composite companies and manufacturing labs in Maine.”

The competition was a collaboration, which brought together businesses and schools from all across the state to encourage a new generation to study a technology that could lead to a high-paying career, in Maine. Plans to transform the state into a green-energy producer will require more workers with engineering degrees. The enthusiasm witnessed on the faces of some students attending the Wind Blade Challenge just might lead to more applications to UMaine.

“We are enormously proud of our composites program and what it can mean for the future of the state and the nation. I think this challenge will get more students involved and excited about that future, so they can be a part of it,” said UMaine President John Kennedy. “You try and predict which design will be the best, but it’s hard.”

The designs had the best in their professions excited.

“The different designs were impressive. There is talent here the industry can use,” said Maine Composites Alliance Executive Director Steve Von Vogt.

“As it was, the first time we did this I was worried that we’d get multiple versions of the same basic design. That didn’t happen,” said Williamson. “The ingenuity and diversity of the different approaches was outstanding.”

As for the future:

“I see the competition becoming a national competition with teams represented from all over America,” said Dr. Dagher. “And it all started here today.”

“Energy is a large focal point for our state and nation going forward. By being able to provide more jobs and educational opportunities in Maine in energy means we won’t be as dependent on foreign oil overseas. Our national security, our environmental security, and our energy security are all tied together,” said the governor. “I’m excited about Maine’s future in green energy and the opportunities that it will provide for students like those who came here today. They will be able to enjoy the best quality of life, here in Maine, with a good paying job.”