GE is developing new superhydrophobic coatings that allow turbines to keep pumping out energy in sub-zero temperatures. As Arctic temperatures again begin to engulf nearly every corner of the United States this week, places not typically exposed to extreme cold are learning to adapt on the fly. Snow brings many transportation difficulties, but for the wind power industry, it’s actually frost and ice that present the biggest challenges. When a winter storm strikes a wind farm and coats massive turbine blades in a thick layer of ice, operations grind to a halt. This is bad news for GE and its wind turbine customers. Taking a cue from the naturally hydrophobic lotus plant, researchers are creating new coatings that will help turbines shed ice the way plants shed rain.
In 2010, wind farms in Minnesota suffered embarrassment in the local media when it was reported that extreme cold had completely halted power generation. At the time, it was found that although special hydraulic fluid designed for colder temperatures was used in the turbines, it failed to work, so officials had to find a contractor that could rig a gas generator to heat up the fluid. In turn, this drastically reduced the net energy gain from each turbine.
GE scientists say that by preventing water droplets from spreading out over the surface of a wind turbine blade or tower, the hydrophobic technology could serve as a permanent, passive de-icing alternative for wind farm operators. Currently, when ice builds up on the surface of a turbine, operators must waste additional energy to heat the blades or continually reapply chemical de-icing agents.