Any Way the Wind Blows

By J. Harvard Feldhouse

When Youngstown State University’s three wind turbines stand motionless in a windy sky, students are often quick to dismiss them as a waste. What many don’t know is these turbines are foundational in wind energy efficiency research facilitated by YSU engineering students.

Mathew Knepper, who works for the sponsor company Ajax Tocco Magnethermic Corporation, was first to take up the project for his senior capstone, with Marc Peoples and David Wolfe joining him soon after. The trio are all seniors in mechanical engineering.

According to Knepper, they are researching how to regulate the spinning speed of the turbine. The group of students said they are trying to spring-load the fan blades to adjust their angle, or pitch, and resistance to the wind.

“As the wind gets strong enough, it’ll automatically overcome that spring force and the blade will feather out in the wind. That limits its rotational speed,” Knepper said.

The goal is for the turbine to always run at the most cost-effective and efficient speed no matter the speed of incoming wind.

“It’ll drive down the cost of the unit, and it’ll also prevent overspeeding, which is a big problem the existing one has,” Knepper said. “A quick gust of wind will happen, it’ll speed up too quickly and it’ll have to shut down before it damages itself.”

This research, though useful for the wind farms out west and by the Great Lakes, isn’t as applicable to the Youngstown area.

By J. Harvard Feldhouse

“For this area, wind energy wouldn’t be the greatest advancement because the wind speeds around here aren’t great enough or consistent enough to produce good wind energy,” Peoples said.

However, if the modified turbine can work in the inconsistent wind in Mahoning Valley, it should work in the more ideal conditions of the Great Plains. The researching students can also take what they’ve learned from this project and utilize it after graduation.

“Engineering is a combination between learning the theory, possibilities and the messy real world,” professor and chair of mechanical, industrial, and manufacturing engineering Hazel Marie said. “We put our little turbines in a wind tunnel with the air coming right at it. It works great, but then you get in the real world, it gets a lot messier.”

Marie said this research project has done well at combining engineering theory with real life scenarios. The students are in the eyes of employers by working directly with the various companies involved.

“It’s like an internship,” Marie said. “The company gets to look at them solving a real problem of theirs. If the company has three openings and these guys are doing a good job, absolutely they would have a leg in, because the company has seen for a year what they can do for free.”

Marie said this is the second year-long research capstone conducted with the turbines since the U.S. Department of Energy awarded YSU a $2 million research grant in 2015 and she believes it will not be the last.

“If the turbines aren’t spinning, it might be because they’re being reworked so we can start our next project,” Marie said.