With temperatures rising around the globe and our trusty fossil fuels rapidly depleting, renewable energy as a sector has grown at an unprecedented rate. However, many of the parts and structures required to build renewable systems are still manufactured using traditional processes, meaning the process as a whole still tends to be carbon positive - albeit with a significantly lower emission outcome.
This is where 3D printing comes in. Additive manufacturing technology has the potential to produce these structures with reduced net emissions, at lower costs, with significant reductions in lead times. It is this power that has driven the technology’s adoption rate in the renewable energy sector over the past few years, with more and more projects utilizing it year-on-year.
How has 3D printing benefitted solar energy?
Just last year, California-based 3D printing innovation company T3DP applied its patented volumetric 3D printing technique to build perovskite-based solar panels, doubling the amount of energy they were able to harness from the sun (a whopping 36%). Building on a previous Stanford University study, the 3D printing technique cures objects in a single step, rather than layer by layer, unlike many other 3D printing processes. This reportedly cut lead times drastically while increasing the power efficiency of the panels to near unseen levels.
There is also something to be said about the material choice here. Perovskites are calcium titanium oxide crystals with superconductive properties. In recent years, this material has generated a lot of interest and is considered by some to be the future of solar cells. Researchers from various institutions are already exploring the potential of perovskites to give us high-performance solar cells. However, due to the fragility of the material, the manufacturability of perovskites has proved difficult thus far. T3DP hopes to refine the process and eventually achieve a 50% efficiency solar cell.
What about wind energy?
While 3D printed wind turbine blades are probably still a good few years off (they’re just too big!), many other parts of the structure have already been subjected to the additive treatment. GE Renewable Energy, together with COBOD and LafargeHolcim, recently announced a three-way partnership to co-develop 3D printed, “record-tall” wind turbine towers.
Leveraging COBOD’s concrete printing technology with LafargeHolcim’s leading construction materials, GE is currently in the process of tying the multi-year project together with its extensive resources. Utilizing the promising technology, the trio intends to boost global renewable energy production while lowering the cost of energy.
For some context, many wind turbines today are typically built-in steel and precast concrete and tend not to exceed 100m in height. This is due to the diameter of the base being limited to 4.5m as anything wider than this cannot be transported to the site of the turbine by road – not without additional costs at least. Therefore, the ability to print the base on-site with a concrete 3D printer would allow for the construction of wind turbine towers in the region of about 200m.
Beyond just being more awe-inspiring, the additional height also has several functional perks. Crunching the numbers, a 5MW turbine at a height of 80m typically generates about 15.1 GWh annually. When that same turbine is placed at a height of 160m, it generates 20.2 GWh annually – A significant increase of 33%.
Taking it offshore
Earlier this year, a team of engineers from Purdue University, together with RCAM Technologies, also began working on a method of 3D printing concrete wind turbine parts, but for offshore use. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, harnessing wind energy off the coast of the U.S. could generate more than double the total electricity output of all the country’s electric power plants. However, the main issue to date has been the costs associated with this, as building and shipping steel wind turbine anchors at least 30 miles from the coastline is a costly venture.
This is where the Purdue research steps in. The project aims to eventually 3D print these same steel anchors out of concrete, which is less expensive and would allow parts to simply float to an offshore site. While the researchers could have opted for traditional manufacturing, this would have required a mold to produce the structure and geometry they wanted. Of course, this incurs additional costs and limits design freedom whereas, with 3D concrete printing, the mold is omitted from the process entirely.
The researchers are currently working to integrate a robot arm with a concrete pump to 3D print these large structures in a process that is effectively large-scale FDM. To scale-up their already established method of 3D printing, the team had to first formulate a special feedstock mixture of cement, sand, aggregates, and chemical admixtures to provide shape stability for the concrete.
Disrupting a disruptive technology
With so many high-profile projects adopting additive manufacturing, it’s no wonder the future of the technology looks bright. In the next five or ten years, with the relevant technological advancements, we could see entire 3D printed solar cell systems as well as complete wind turbines. While many countries are gradually turning to renewable sources to power their major cities, what's needed is a global push to jump the next few hurdles.
It’s no secret that industrial capitalism has previously shown itself to be the enemy of progress in this area. Fortunately, 3D printing is slowly demonstrating its ability to save the bottom line, all while increasing energy efficiencies on energy-harnessing devices. Perhaps this win-win scenario is just what the world needs in this oh-so-critical window of opportunity.
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