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Wind turbines seem to be on steroids these days — they’re getting bulkier and heavier, and that makes them more expensive to ship and more complex to assemble. But a startup called Boulder Wind Turbines says it has figured out a new way to lighten the load.
The Colorado company, founded in 2009, has engineered a generator that incorporates a circuit board design as one of its main components. A generator’s motor is made up of a rotating component called the rotor and a stationary part called the stator. In a typical generator today, both the rotor and the stator are made with iron wrapped with copper coils to create the magnetic field for producing mechanical energy, which will then be converted to electricity.
But what Boulder Wind Power has done is to engineer a different kind of stator by printing copper wires onto fiber glass and laminating layers of fiber glass together to create a stator that looks, and works, like a printed circuit board, said Andy Cukurs, the startup’s CEO. This design doesn’t use iron, but it does add a magnet to the whole generator to create that magnetic field. In the end, what you get is a stator sandwiched between the magnet-lined rotor.
The printed circuit board design, Cukurs said, is “light weight, and it translates into cost savings because you don’t have to build a heavy foundation and tower. The wind industry uses weight as a proxy for cost.”
For example, a Boulder Wind Power generator for a 3 MW turbine would weight 40 percent less than more common generators, Cukurs said. If a wind tower weighs 200 metric tons, then the use of the startup’s generator can cut the weight by 6-10 metric tons, he added.
The use of the magnets also sets the company’s technology apart. In fact, the startup’s generator design belongs to a class of technology called “direct drive permanent magnet,” which emerged in recent years to replace designs that create heavier and less efficient or reliable wind turbines. Major wind turbine makers such as Siemens and GE all have developed generators using direct-drive permanent magnets. But whether the technology can really deliver the savings remains a big debate.
The startup has built a 3 MW generator to show how its technology works. It’s close to signing its first deal to create a prototype for a customer, who will give the equipment a whirl and decide if it wants to place an order for more. Cukurs declined to name this potential customer. If all goes well with the deal, Boulder Wind Power will work on delivering the prototype by the end of 2013 or early 2014. Its first revenues could come in 2015.
The startup doesn’t plan to make and sell generators, however. Instead, it plans to make money mostly by licensing its technology. This approach takes away the pressure of having to raise lots of money to build factories or dealing with multiple manufacturers to source various components. But the company does plan to sell the stators and will hire a manufacturer to make them.
But whether the direct-drive permanent magnet technology can really deliver on its technical promises remains a big debate. Wind turbine makers began introducing permanent generators in 2006, but this type of generators isn’t widely used, according to a report by the U.S. Geological Survey.
Permanent magnets made using rare earth elements are more powerful and efficient than those made with non-rare earth materials, but the use of rare earth also increases the costs. Most of the rare earth elements are produced in China, which curbed their exports in the past and caused a spike in their prices. Efforts to produce rare earth in other parts of the world have been underway in countries such as Malaysia and the U.S. by companies such as Colorado-based Molycorp.
Boulder Wind Power’s technology uses neodymium, a rare earth element, and it counts Molycorp as an investor. Cukurs said high pricing was an obstacle that prevented the wider adoption of permanent magnets in the past, but the prices have come down. Meanwhile, some companies are developing better-performing generators that won’t need rare earth at all.
Boulder Wind Power has raised $46.5 million in equity total from investors that also included New Enterprise Associates, and is looking at raising another round in 2014 if not sooner.