09/21/2011 07:56 pm ET | Updated Nov 21, 2011

Wind Turbines Get ‘MRI' Treatment From GE

From EarthTechling's Steve Duda:

In the past, the mention of an MRI machine usually brought with it bad news. For more than 30 years, the machines have been used to provide doctors with high definition pictures of torn ligaments, broken bones and even the workings of internal organs. Now, researchers at General Electric say that they are using the superconducting magnet technology behind MRIs to make bigger, more powerful and more efficient wind turbines.

With a two-year, $3 million research grant provided provided by the U.S. Department of Energy, GE’s Global Research team says their goal is to develop a next-generation wind turbine generator that could support large-scale wind applications in the 10 to 15 megawatt (MW) range. One MW can power between 240 and 300 U. S. homes per year, according to the American Wind Energy Association. GEs most popular wind turbine has been a 1.5-MW model.

Current wind turbine technology uses a conventional generator that is connected to a gearbox. The gearbox transforms the turbine’s low blade speeds into higher speeds, so that you can reduce the torque requirements before it reaches the generator. While effective, they incur higher costs as you scale up to larger wind platforms because of additional weight and maintenance needs. GE’s new turbine technology is a direct-drive system where the shaft of the rotor blade connects directly to a low-speed generator that uses the MRI’s permanent superconducting magnet technology to generate power.

The larger power levels of these machines, coupled with their improved energy conversion efficiency, leads to more favorable economies of scale (e.g., fewer towers for a given wind-farm output) that will help reduce the cost of energy produced by wind turbines, GE says.

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