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SCIENCE CHINA

Technological Sciences
Special Topic: Engineering Thermophysics

January 2015 Vol.58 No.1: 18

Article

doi: 10.1007/s11431-014-5741-8

Numerical analysis and experimental investigation of wind turbine


blades with innovative features: Structural response and
characteristics
CHEN Xiao*, QIN ZhiWen, YANG Ke, ZHAO XiaoLu & XU JianZhong
National Laboratory of Wind Turbine Blade Research & Development Center, Institute of Engineering Thermophysics,
Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100190, China
Received September 26, 2014; accepted December 3, 2014; published online December 19, 2014

Innovative features of wind turbine blades with flatback at inboard region, thick airfoils at inboard as well as mid-span region
and transversely stepped thickness in spar caps have been proposed by Institute of Engineering Thermophysics, Chinese
Academy of Sciences (IET-Wind) in order to improve both aerodynamic and structural efficiency of rotor blades. To verify the
proposed design concepts, this study first presented numerical analysis using finite element method to clarify the effect of flatback on local buckling strength of the inboard region. Blade models with various loading cases, inboard configurations, and
core materials were comparatively studied. Furthermore, a prototype blade incorporated with innovative features was manufactured and tested under static bending loads to investigate its structural response and characteristics. It was found that rotor
blades with flatback exhibited favorable local buckling strength at the inboard region compared with those with conventional
sharp trailing edge when low-density PVC foam was used. The prototype blade showed linear behavior under extreme loads in
spar caps, aft panels, shear web and flatback near the maximum chord which is usually susceptible to buckling in the blades
according to traditional designs. The inboard region of the blade showed exceptional load-carrying capacity as it survived
420% extreme loads in the experiment. Through this study, potential structural advantages by applying proposed structural
features to large composite blades of multi-megawatt wind turbines were addressed.
wind energy, rotor blade, flatback, local buckling, extreme loads
Citation:

Chen X, Qin Z W, Yang K, et al. Numerical analysis and experimental investigation of wind turbine blades with innovative features: Structural response and characteristics. Sci China Tech Sci, 2015, 58: 18, doi: 10.1007/s11431-014-5741-8

1 Introduction
Wind energy is one of the lowest-priced renewable energy
technologies available today. Installed wind energy capacity
both worldwide and in China has grown exponentially over
the past few years and it is expected to increase significantly
in the years to come [1]. As one of the most critical components in wind turbine system, rotor blades capture kinetic
energy from wind and convert it to mechanical energy,
*Corresponding author (email: drchenxiao@163.com)
Science China Press and Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2014

which is eventually converted to electrical energy by generators. Rotor blades are thin-walled composite structures
with airfoil cross-sectional profiles. Typical construction of
blade cross sections is shown in Figure 1. Spar caps of rotor
blades are made of composite laminates and designed to
carry primary bending moments applied to the blades, while
leading panel and aft panel are made of sandwich constructions and designed to provide aerodynamic profiles of blade
cross sections. Shear webs are also sandwich constructions
and designed to support two spar caps and transfer shear
forces in the blades.
tech.scichina.com link.springer.com

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Figure 1 (Color online) Typical construction of cross sections of composite wind turbine blades.

Aerodynamic and structural performance of rotor blades


determines the overall performance of wind turbines. Researchers [27] have been focusing on improving aerodynamic efficiency of rotor blades as it directly affects the
power output of wind turbines and the associated cost of
wind energy. Therefore, aerodynamic performance of rotor
blades is usually regarded to be of primary concern in wind
turbine design. Nevertheless, recent failure accidents of
rotor blades have attracted researchers attention. Through a
number of studies [811] it has been found that local buckling of large aft panels and sharp trailing edge near the
maximum chord, failure of inboard region at the root transition, and spar cap delamination are among major failure
modes in composite rotor blades.
In order to increase structural performance of blades,
sandia national laboratories (SNL) [1214] conducted a
so-called blade system design study (BSDS) in which
structural innovations such as flatback airfoils, thick root
diameter, carbon spar cap, etc. were proposed and structural
advantages of these innovations were demonstrated by experiments using subscale prototype blades. Meanwhile, a
series of research programs have been carried out at National Laboratory of Wind Turbine Blade Research & Development Center, Institute of Engineering Thermophysics,
Chinese Academy of Sciences (IET-Wind) aiming to improve both aerodynamic and structural performance of

Figure 2

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composite wind turbine blades. From material and structural


point of view, the proposed blades were featured with (i)
glass/polyester composites for lower material and manufacturing cost compared with more commonly used glass/
epoxy composites, (ii) flatback at the inboard region and
thick airfoils at both inboard and mid-span region for larger
bending stiffness and strength compared with sharp trailing
edge and thin airfoils used in the conventional blades, and
(iii) transversely stepped thickness in spar caps for more
efficient use of materials against external bending loads due
to the increase of the area moment of inertia of the blade
cross-section. The structural features of the proposed blades
are illustrated in Figure 2. Major difference between the
BSDS blade and the one proposed by IET-Wind is shown in
Table 1.
Although structural advantages of the BSDS blade have
been studied by SNL, the comparisons of structural performance were made between blades with different geometries,
material layups, and applied loads. It should be noted that
comparative study on blades with a single variable would
give more conclusive information to blade designers than
the one with multiple variables especially when the effect of
one particular variable is of interest. Considering the flatback at the inboard region is one of the most important innovations proposed by both SNL and IET, this structural
feature is treated as a key variable in the current study and
comparative study is conducted numerically to clarify its
effect on local buckling strength of the blades. Furthermore,
a prototype blade with the joint use of flatback, thick airfoils and transversely stepped spar cap thickness has been
manufactured and tested in order to verify the proposed
design concepts with emphasis on structural response and
characteristics of the blades. It is expected that more insights into structural performance could be gained through
this study and eventually more reliable and cost-effective
blade designs for wind energy utilization could be achieved.

2 Numerical modeling and analysis


In numerical modeling, a blade with structural features of
flatback at the inboard region, thick airfoils at both inboard

(Color online) Structural features of blades proposed by IET-Wind.

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Table 1 Comparison of structural features between blades proposed by


SNL and IET
SNL
Thin, large diameter root
Thick airfoil at inboard region
Spar cap with full length and
constant-thickness
Carbon spar cap
Epoxy resin

IET
Regular root size
Thick airfoil at inboard and
mid-span region
Spar cap with transversely
stepped thickness
Glass spar cap
Polyester resin

and mid-span regions, and transversely stepped thickness in


spar caps was analyzed. Although structural advantages of
many features are readily assessed according to basic structural mechanics, those of flatback at the inboard region have
not been thoroughly investigated by the existing studies
[1214], in which different blades of multiply variables
were compared with. In this study, the blade geometric configurations at the inboard region with flatback was determined to be a key variable in the numerical modeling and
other variables such as outboard geometry, material layups,
and applied loads were kept the same among the blade
models to be analyzed. In this study, particular focus was
paid to local buckling strength of blades with different inboard configurations.
2.1

Blade geometry and material properties

Four types of blades with a total length of 10.3 m were


modeled using the general finite element program Abaqus
[15], and they were labeled as BS1: A baseline blade model
with a conventional sharp trailing edge at the inboard region;
BS2-1: A blade model with a conventional sharp trailing
edge and a longer chord length at the inboard region; BS2-2:
A blade model same as BS2-1 but with an additional shear
web; BF: A blade model with a flatback and a same chord
length as BS1, see Figure 3. All blade models had same
configurations at outboard regions which dominate aerodynamic performance of the blades. Physical dimensions of
aerodynamic profiles of four blade models along their spans
are shown in Figure 4. Except inboard configurations, all
blades had the proposed features as thick airfoils at inboard
and mid-span regions and transversely stepped thickness in
spar caps.

Figure 3

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Material layups of four blades were assigned to be identical when blade regions are the same. The material layups
of the additional shear web in BS2-2 were the same as those
of the primary shear web in other three blades. The material
layups as well as the geometry of the flatback region in BF
were identical to those of the additional shear web in BS2-2.
Because mechanical properties of core materials significantly affect buckling strength of sandwich constructions in
the blades, two different core materials, i.e., PVC foam and
balsa wood, which are commonly used in wind turbine
blades were selected to perform parametric study in the
numerical analysis. Typical material properties of cores
used in this study are shown in Table 2.
2.2

Element type and mesh density

Shell elements S4R with an offset-node formulation were


used for outer blade skins and those with a conventional
mid-node formulation were used for shear webs. S4R is a
4-node, quadrilateral, stress/displacement shell element with
reduced integration and a large-strain formulation. A typical
size of 25 mm 25 mm was used to mesh the models, before
this mesh size was determined, a mesh convergence study
has been conducted. It was found that when the blades were
meshed with typical sizes of 35 mm35 mm, 25 mm25
mm, and 15 mm15 mm, the results of the first natural frequencies of the blades between 25 mm25 mm mesh and 15
mm15 mm mesh were below 2%, and the results of the
first bucking eigenvalues between two meshes were below
4%, therefore, a mesh size of 25 mm25 mm was deemed
sufficient. This mesh size resulted in a total number of shell
elements ranging approximately from 24000 to 26000 for
four blade models.
2.3

Boundary and loading conditions

Fixed boundary was applied to the blade roots. Applied


loads of four blades were assumed to be identical considering that outboard regions controlling aerodynamic performance of the four blades were the same. Static bending
loads were applied to the blades to simulate extreme wind
loads that the blades were expected to sustain in 20 years
design lives according to IEC standard 61400-1 [16] and

(Color online) Blade geometry and cross-sections of blades considered in numerical modeling.

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Table 2

Properties of core materials used in sandwich panels


Density
Compressive
Shear modulus
Core material
(kg/m3)
modulus (MPa)
(MPa)
PVC foam
60
70
20
Balsa wood
155
4100
166

Figure 4

(Color online) Physical dimensions of the blades.

GL Guideline for the Certification of Wind Turbines [17].


There were four loading cases in terms of bending directions for each blade and they are schematically shown in
Figure 5 taking the blade model BF for example. The loading cases of Flap_max and Flap_min primarily result in
compression at suction side and pressure side of the blades,
respectively; while the loading cases of Edge_max and
Edge_min primarily result in compression at leading edge
and trailing edge of the blades.
Desired distributions of bending moments in each loading case were calculated by IEC and GL and they were approximated by piece-wise linear fits achieved by point loads
introduced at 4 and 8 m blade spans, see Figure 6. Point
loads with resultants equal to the forces necessary to generate bending moments were equally distributed on the spar
caps responsible for loading-carrying. The use of this kind
of loading introduction was also intended to simulate the
actual test setups in the blade load tests which will be fur-

Figure 5

Loading directions of the blades.

January (2015) Vol.58 No.1

ther discussed in section 3. Representatively, boundary and


loading conditions of the blade model BF in the Flap_
max loading case are shown in Figure 7.
2.4

Simulation results and discussion

There were two categories of FE analysis conducted on the


blade models, the one was stiffness analysis with incremental loading in order to obtain the deflections and spar cap
strains of the blades, and the other one was linear buckling
analysis with specified loads, i.e., 100% applied loads, in
order to evaluate local buckling strength of the blades under
extreme wind loads. Because local buckling strength of four
blades with different inboard configurations was of major
interest in numerical analysis, FE results from linear buckling analysis is presented and discussed in this section,
while FE results from the stiffness analysis were compared
with and validated against those from the blade test presented in section 3.
In total, 32 numerical analyses were performed to study
buckling strength of blades in terms of four inboard configurations, four loading cases and two core materials. The

Figure 6

(Color online) Bending moments applied to the blades.

Figure 7 (Color online) Boundary and loading conditions of the BF blade


in the Flap_max loading case.

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lowest eigenvalues for linear buckling of all analyses were


normalized by those obtained from the baseline blade models, i.e., BS1, with the same loading cases and core materials. The results are summarized in Figure 8.

buckling modes were suppressed by introducing flatback at


the trailing edge sides. Representatively, buckling modes of
blades in the loading case Flap_max are shown in Figure
9(a).

2.4.1 Blades with PVC foam core


It can be seen that when PVC foam core materials were
used, buckling strengths of the baseline blade were improved by new configurations introduced at the inboard
regions in BS1-1, 2 and BF. The blade BF exhibited most
significant improvement in buckling strength in the loading
cases Edge_min and Flap_max compared with other
blades. Particularly, the blade BF showed a 25% increase in
buckling strength compared with its baseline blade in the
loading case Edge_min. The blades BS1-1 and 2 showed
preferable buckling strength in the loading case Edge_
max, while in the loading case Flap_min, only a few
percentages of improvement in buckling strength were
found in BS1-1, 2 and BF.
These trends are regarded to be reasonable considering
the loading directions in each case. In the loading cases
Edge_min and Flap_max, the trailing edge sides most
susceptible to local buckling were primarily subjected to
compression, the introduction of longer chord length in
BS1-1, 2 and flatback in BF greatly increased local buckling
resistance of inboard regions. In the loading case Edge_
max, the trailing edge sides were primarily subjected to
tension, larger bending stiffness due to longer chord length
in BS-1, 2 therefore exhibited more significant increase in
buckling resistance than the flatback in BF. In the loading
case Flap_min, the trailing edge sides were partially subjected to tension due to airfoil twist, the improvement of
buckling strength was not significant by introducing either
longer chord length or flatback. Furthermore, by examining
buckling modes of each blade, it was noticed that buckling
regions of the BF blade at the trailing edge sides were
smaller than those of other three blades, suggesting that

2.4.2 Blades with balsa wood core


When cored with balsa wood, the blades exhibited only
slight difference, approximately within 3%, in buckling
strength for different loading cases and inboard configurations. This can be explained by the locations of buckling
modes found at the middle spans of the blades as shown in
Figure 9(b). Because four blades were only different in the
inboard regions, it is not surprising that buckling strength of
four blades did not differ much. It should be emphasized
that although balsa wood could considerably improve buckling strength of sandwich panels in the blades, it is much
more expensive than low-density PVC foam material,
meanwhile, weight penalty due to large material density is
also of concern for wind turbine blades. For four blades
studied in this study, their weights were increased by 5% to
6% when balsa wood was used.

Figure 8 (Color online) Normalized eigenvalue for linear buckling of


different blades under various loading cases.

Figure 9 (Color online) Buckling modes of blades in the loading case


Flap_max.

3 Experimental investigation
Based on simulation results and discussion presented in
section 2, it is evident that the blade with flatback showed
stronger local buckling strength at the inboard regions than
the blade with conventional sharp trailing edges when other
variables such as outboard geometry, material layups, and
applied loads were the same. Therefore, it is expected that
local geometry modification from the commonly used sharp
trailing edge to the flatback could be an efficient way to

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January (2015) Vol.58 No.1

increase local buckling strength of wind turbine blades. In


this section, a prototype blade BF cored with PVC foams
was manufactured and tested under static bending to verify
the numerical results and further examine structural characteristics of blades with the proposed features.

deflections and strains at the failure load were not able to be


indentified clearly due to the rapid failure of the blade, the
average values of measurements taken from 200% test load
step to the final failure were used to approximate structural
response at the load step of 210%.

3.1

3.2

Test program

Static bending was applied to the blade which was rootfixed at a test stand. Two cranes were used to introduce
loads at 4 and 8 m blade spans as shown in Figure 10.
The loads were applied in a step-wise form following a
test sequence as shown in Table 3. Once a loading case was
finished, the blade was rotated along its longitudinal axis to
a desired position and tested in a subsequent loading case.
At each load level, applied loads were recoded by load
cells mounted on cranes, deflections of the blade were
measured at two loading saddle locations and at the blade
tip using draw-wire displacement transducers. Blade strains
were recorded by strain gauges located along the center line
of spar caps, at the middle of flatback, aft panels and shear
webs. Only strains longitudinal to the blade axis were
measured on spar caps, while both longitudinal and transverse strains were measured at other locations by the corresponding strain gauges labeled as 0 and 90, respectively.
The use of these orthogonal gauges were intended to better
indicate the occurrence of local buckling at flatback, aft
panels, and shear webs during the tests through changes of
load-strain path directions.
The blade successfully passed 100% test loads simulating
the extreme loads in the loading cases of Edge_min,
Flap_min, and Edge_max. In the following loading
case Flap_max, it was decided to load the blade to failure
if it could survive 100% test loads. Applied loads continued
to increase and when they were close to 220% test loads, the
blade failed catastrophically at 6-m span. Measurements of

Figure 10
Table 3

(Color online) Experimental setups for the blade test.

Load test history of the blade

Sequence
1
2
3

Cases
Edge_min
Flap_min
Edge_max

Loading history
0-40%-60%-80%-100%-unloading
0-40%-60%-80%-100%-unloading
0-40%-60%-80%-100%-unloading

Flap_max

0-40%-60%-80%-100%-120%140%-160%-180%-200%blade failure

Experimental results and discussion

3.2.1 Deflection and spar cap strains


Measurements of deflections and spar cap strains in each
loading case were compared with the predictions from numerical analysis. Representatively, the results for the loading case Flap_max are shown in Figure 11, where results
of some load steps were not shown for the sake of clarity in
presentation. It can be seen that experimental measurements
and numerical predictions are with good agreement. The tip
deflections of the blade at the extreme loads and near the
ultimate failure loads were about 1.37 and 2.56 m, respectively; the corresponding longitudinal strains of spar caps at
6-m span were around 3500 and 6700 at both pressure and
suction side.
3.2.2 Local strains of the maximum chord section
Local strain response of the inboard region of the blade with
flatback is of particular interest in the experimental study.
As buckling is reported as one of dominating structural response near the maximum chord of conventional blades
with sharp trailing edge. The strain records of the current
blade measured near the maximum chord, i.e., 2-m span,
were carefully examined and they are shown in Figure 12.
It can be seen that strains measured at spar caps, aft panel,
and the flatback near the maximum chord exhibited linear
relation to applied loads in all loading cases up to the extreme loads, although slight nonlinear response was found
at shear web when loads approached the extreme loads in
the loading case Flap_max. This observation suggests that
in general the blade has sufficient buckling resistance in
these regions. Considering the loading process to the final
failure loads of the blade in the Flap_max case, it is interesting to notice that spar cap and aft panel remained in linear response as shown in Figures 12(a) and (b). While shear
web started to show obvious nonlinear behavior beyond the
extreme loads. Longitudinal strain and transverse strain
changed load paths simultaneously with the increase of applied loads suggesting the occurrence of buckling at this
location as shown in Figure 12(c). Similarly, the flatback
near the maximum chord showed linear response up to
140% test load and local buckling started to occur afterwards as shown in Figure 12(d).
It is important to note that although local buckling was
detected at shear web and flatback near the maximum chord,
the corresponding buckling loads were beyond the extreme
loads. Furthermore, by examining strain levels at buckling
loads, it can be found that all local strains were within 200 ,

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Figure 11

Figure 12

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January (2015) Vol.58 No.1

(Color online) Comparison of blade deflections and spar cap strains. (a) Blade deflections; (b) spar cap strains.

(Color online) Local strain responses of the blade. (a) Spar cap strains; (b) aft panel strain; (c) shear web strains; (d) flatback strain.

which are much smaller than the failure strains of composite


materials used in the blade. Therefore, the local buckling
response of shear web and flatback in the loading process to
the blade failure was not able to cause material failure at
these locations. This observation is of significance considering that when the conventional sharp trailing edge is subjected to buckling, it usually exhibits local buckling and the
associated material failure due to large strains [10]. The
flatback used in the current blade exhibited great potential
to improve local buckling strength which is usually one of
the weakest links in structural systems of wind turbine

blades.
3.2.3 Ultimate strength of inboard region
Because the blade failure at 6-m span prohibited the assessment of the inboard region at the ultimate failure, it was
decided to conduct an additional static bending test with an
intention to fail the blade at the inboard region in the loading case Flap_max. This load test was achieved by using
the loading saddle previously mounted at 4-m span. Pulling
forces were continuously applied and monitored. When the
root moment reached approximately 294 kNm which was

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about 420% of the root moment caused by the 100% extreme loads, the inboard region did not exhibit any sign of
failure.
The load test was then aborted due to safety concern.
Subsequently, the inboard region of the blade was visually
inspected and no material failure was found. It was concluded that the inboard region of the blade had exceptional
ultimate strength.

January (2015) Vol.58 No.1

tive of applying the proposed features to large rotor blades


for multi-megawatt wind turbines.
This work was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of
China (Grant No. 51405468).
1
2

Conclusions and future work

To verify innovative structural features of wind turbine


blades proposed by IET-Wind, a rotor blade with flatback,
thick airfoils, and transversely stepped thickness in spar
caps was numerically analyzed and experimentally investigated focusing on its structural response and characteristics.
The following conclusions were drawn.
By comparing linear buckling strength of blades with
different inboard configurations in numerical analysis, it
was found that the blade with flatback showed more favorable buckling resistance at the inboard regions than those
with the conventional sharp trailing edge when low-density
PVC foam was used. However, no significant advantage of
flatback was found when balsa wood was used due to buckling mode occurred at the mid-span where blade geometry,
material layups, and applied loads were identical. In load
tests, the prototype blade with the proposed features exhibited linear behavior under extreme loads in spar caps, aft
panels, shear web and flatback near the maximum chord
which is usually regarded to be susceptible to buckling. In
the failure test under flapwise bending, the shear web and
the flatback near the maximum chord experienced local
buckling around 100% and 140% extreme loads, respectively, and they continued to sustain applied loads up to
220% extreme loads without any material failure. The inboard region of the blade showed exceptional ultimate
strength as it survived 420% extreme loads in the experiment.
Followed by this study, three blades identical to the prototype have been manufactured and installed on a 100 kilowatt wind turbine. A series of field tests will be carried out
after an ongoing trial run period to study aerodynamic, aeroacoustic, aeroelastic, and structural performance of rotor
blades incorporated with innovative features proposed by
IET-Wind. Other studies are also planned, with the objec-

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