Data-gathering trip puts wind in energy researcher’s sails

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Friday, Nov 15, 2013 - 2:44 pm

Duke Ph.D. candidate Jenni Rinker recently traveled to Colorado with the support of the Energy Initiative to build contacts for her research into wind turbine design. She explains her work and the value of this trip to her academic and professional growth.

It is often said that the point of a Ph.D. is to become an expert in a particular research topic, and I think few people would argue that one of the most efficient ways to gain that expertise is to interact and communicate with other experts.

In August, with the support of the Energy Initiative, I had the opportunity to do just that: I travelled to Boulder, Colo., to visit the National Wind Technology Center (NWTC) and attend the second annual meeting of the North American Wind Energy Academy (NAWEA).

This trip was an amazing opportunity for me because my Ph.D. research in the Civil & Environmental Engineering department focuses on a novel wind simulation technique that we are developing, so I wanted to connect with other researchers both to understand what topics are hot right now and to gauge their interest in our simulation method.

The NAWEA meeting was held at the University of Colorado, Boulder (CU-Boulder), which is very close to the NWTC in Louisville, so I was able to kill two birds with one stone on this trip. The NWTC is part of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), but is devoted entirely to wind energy research and maintains a campus separate from the main NREL campus in Golden. The research projects at the NWTC span all aspects of wind energy, including controls analysis, utility grid integration assessment, and wind resource assessment. Big-name wind turbine manufacturers also contract with the NWTC to do structural testing, monitoring and design review (, so there are usually at least a half-dozen operational wind turbines at the NWTC in any given time.

Turbine at NWTC

For my Ph.D. research, my advisor Dr. Henri Gavin and I have been using data from the NWTC to develop our wind simulation technique, then using an open-source wind turbine simulator code called FAST to determine the effects of our method on the simulated fatigue loads in wind turbines. This code was developed by Jason Jonkman at the NWTC, and I was able to meet with him during my visit. I met with other researchers at the NWTC including Bonnie Jonkman to discuss the development of FAST and some of her previous work with turbulence-turbine interactions, as well as Paul Fleming to discuss wind turbine controls, a hobby of mine. Scott Hughes gave me a tour of the Structural Testing Laboratory, where they conduct full-scale load and fatigue tests on wind turbine blades. Imagine a wind turbine blade that is as tall as the Duke Chapel laying sideways in a hangar, criss-crossed with wires and strain gages, and you’ll get the picture.

The NAWEA symposium began the day after I visited the NWTC. NAWEA is a collaborative organization of researchers from universities, laboratories and companies focused upon identifying and investigating key wind energy issues. The interdisciplinary focus spans not only different engineering topics but also areas such as atmospheric science and even policy. I heard lectures on topics that varied from wind turbine controls to atmospheric modeling, and discussions on policy and what political obstacles wind energy must overcome before it will be widely accepted.

I spoke with professors at other universities at poster sessions, talked to industry leaders about what issues were important to them, and even had a one-on-one lunch conversation with a researcher at NREL who invented his own wind simulation technique.

The whole experience was absolutely incredible and has given a huge boost to my research. Not only am I more in-tune with the wind energy community, I also have a network of contacts that I can use for future endeavors. For example, from my one-on-one lunch discussion I developed a collaboration with a researcher at the NWTC who, like me, is also interested in the effects of turbulence and wind turbine fatigue lives. I got suggestions about which conferences to attend to maintain these connections both with the people and with the topics that they are investigating. I plan on working on my research at the NWTC next summer in order to maximize the many benefits that I have gained from this single trip.

Jenni Rinker is a Ph.D. student in the Civil & Environmental Engineering Department at Duke University. Her current research focuses on using computational tools and uncertainty quantification methods to determine if current methods of wind simulations are sufficient for wind turbine design considerations. She is particularly interested in the relationship between boundary layer meteorology, turbulence, and subsequent fatigue loads and lifespans of wind turbines. Jenni earned her B.S. in Engineering in 2011 from Harvey Mudd College, where she worked on two main projects: the construction and validation of a finite element model of a wind turbine blade and on novel tuning methods of tuned-mass dampers for vibration suppression.

Location: Student Wellness Center, Room 148
Time: 10:30 am to 12:15 pm
Location: Fitzpatrick Center, Schiciano Auditorium Side B, room 1466
Time: 2:00 pm to 3:00 pm