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Engineering Failure Analysis 44 (2014) 345350

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Engineering Failure Analysis

journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/engfailanal

Preliminary failure investigation of a 52.3 m glass/epoxy

composite wind turbine blade
Xiao Chen a,b,c,, Wei Zhao c, Xiao Lu Zhao a,b,c, Jian Zhong Xu a,b,c

Institute of Engineering Thermophysics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, No.11 Beisihuan West Road, Beijing 100190, China
National Laboratory of Wind Turbine Blade Research & Development Center, No.11 Beisihuan West Road, Beijing 100190, China
Engineering Research Center on Wind Turbine Blades of Hebei Province, No. 2011 Xiangyang North Street, Baoding 071051, China

a r t i c l e

i n f o

Article history:
Received 20 February 2014
Received in revised form 7 May 2014
Accepted 20 May 2014
Available online 11 June 2014
Wind turbine
Blade failure

a b s t r a c t
Despite the enthusiastic pursuing for large wind turbine blades to reduce the cost of wind
power, wind energy industry has witnessed a number of catastrophic blade failure
accidents in recent years. In order to provide more insights into the failure of large blades,
this short communication presents preliminary investigation on a 52.3 m composite blade
designed for multi-megawatt wind turbines. Static loads were applied to simulate extreme
load conditions subjected by the blade. After blade failure, visual inspection was carried
out and failure characteristics of the blade were examined. It was found that the blade
exhibited multiple failure modes. Among various failure modes observed, delamination
of unidirectional laminates in the spar cap was identied to be the plausible root cause
of the catastrophic failure of the blade. This study emphasized that through-thickness
stresses can signicantly affect the failure of large composite blades and provided some
suggestions to the current design practices.
2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction
Wind power as a type of renewable energy sources has received considerable attention worldwide and its development is
growing at an unprecedented rate in recent years. In the wind turbine system, the blades of a wind turbine rotor are
generally regarded as one of the most critical components. Driven by economies-of-scale factors that substantially reduce
the cost of wind power, the sizes of wind turbine blades become increasingly large. In recent two years, however, structural
failure of large composite blades with lengths around 50 m has attracted negative attention to the wind energy sector [1].
The catastrophic blade failure caused by extreme loading conditions such as typhoon and blade tower impact usually results
in either whole blades or pieces of blade being thrown from the turbine, endangering adjacent wind turbines and people
living/working close to the wind farm.
Failure investigation could provide useful information for improving the blade design and minimizing the risk of blade
failure. Due to commercial reasons, technical reports of failure investigation performed on failed blades are regarded to
be condential and there is not much information being disclosed. Some researchers managed to provide valuable information to better understand failure behavior and root causes of large blades through expensive full-scale structural tests.
Among them, Jensen et al. [24] tested a 34 m wind turbine blade and its load-carrying spar girder to failure and found that
Corresponding author at: Institute of Engineering Thermophysics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, No.11 Beisihuan West Road, Beijing 100190, China.
Tel.: +86 135 5239 6959; fax: +86 010 8254 3037.
E-mail address: drchenxiao@163.com (X. Chen).
1350-6307/ 2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.


X. Chen et al. / Engineering Failure Analysis 44 (2014) 345350

Blade geometry
leading edge
trailing edge
suction side
pressure side
Failure mode
laminate fracture
sandwich skin-core debonding
core failure

the Brazier effect induced large deformation in the spar cap and the further delamination buckling were the causes led to the
blade collapse. Overgarrd et al. [5,6] tested a 25 m blade to failure and concluded that the ultimate strength of the blade was
governed by instability phenomena in the form of delamination and buckling instead of the Brazier effect. Yang et al. [7]
studied structural collapse of a 40 m blade and found that debonding of aerodynamic shells from adhesive joints was the
main reason for the blade to collapse. Chou et al. [8] investigated a typhoon-damaged composite blade with a blade length
close to 39.5 m and showed that the blade failed at a wind-speed of 53.4 m/s by delamination and cracking, although it was
expected to resist forces at a wind speed of 80 m/s.
In order to provide more insights into failure behavior and mechanisms of large composite blades, authors of this study
carried out a static failure test on a commercial wind turbine blade with a total length of 52.3 m, which by far, according to
authors knowledge, is the longest length among those reported by public studies. It was expected that through this study
the failure characteristics and failure mechanisms of the state-of-the-art commercial wind turbine blades nowadays commonly with lengths in a range from 50 to 60 m can be better understood. As a part of early research outcomes, this short
communication presented complex failure characteristics of the blade that have not been observed from other blades with
shorter lengths and identied the plausible root cause of its failure. Furthermore, this work also provided some suggestions
to the current blade design practices based on the failure investigation of this large blade.
2. Information of blade test
2.1. Test specimen
According to manufacturing information, the blade under investigation was a prototype blade designed for 2.5 MW wind
turbines in a Class III b wind site and had a total length of 52.3 m. The geometry of the blade is shown in Fig. 1(a). The blade
was made of glass fabrics and vacuum infused with epoxy resin, and it had a conventional box-spar construction with two
shear webs. Spar caps contained triaxial laminates at outer and inner surfaces and a large amount of unidirectional laminates
between two surfaces. Aft panels, leading edge (LE) panels and two shear webs were sandwich constructions cored with PVC
foams. The composite layup regions of the blade are shown in Fig. 1(b).
2.2. Test procedures
The blade was rst tested under static loads required by certication bodies [9,10] in order to start a series production of
this blade type. Two apwise directions and two edgewise directions of bending were used based on IEC standard 61400-23:
Full-scale structural testing of rotor blades [11], which notes these directions being the most important load conditions to be
evaluated in the static test. The blade was cantilever-xed at its root and bending loads were applied in a stepwise form
through three cranes to achieve target test loads. The blade had sustained all target test loads successfully with no noticeable
material damage or residual deformation according to the post-test visual inspection. Therefore, it was regarded that the
structural integrity of the blade was not adversely affected by the static tests for the blade certication.
Subsequently, the blade was used for a failure test in the apwise bending with its suction side (SS) under compression. A
new set of test loads designed for 3.0 MW wind turbines was applied to simulate the extreme wind loads the blade was
expected to subjected to. The maximum root moment was 12,213 kN m and the maximum root shear force was 431 kN.
During the failure test, test loads were applied quasi-statically by using four cranes following a loading procedure of 0%,
40%, 60%, 80%, 100% of the target loads. Load cells were mounted at each crane to record the applied loads. There was no
communication among cranes which applied pulling force upwards simultaneously to obtain each prescribed load level
and then held for around ten seconds before the next load level was applied, see Fig. 2.
Applied loads were continued to increase after the blade survived 80% of the target loads at which acoustic emissions from
the inboard region of the blade were detected. During the loading process towards 100% of the target loads, the acoustic


X. Chen et al. / Engineering Failure Analysis 44 (2014) 345350

(a) region



2.5m section


4.0m section

9.5m section

Spar cap

Leading edge panel

Aft panel

Trailing edge

Shear web
Fig. 1. The geometry and composite layup regions of the blade. (a) Blade geometry. (b) Composite layup regions of the blade.

Fig. 2. The blade under apwise bending (before failure).

emissions became signicant and the catastrophic failure of the blade occurred drastically at the inboard region of the blade.
From the load cell recordings, the load level at the blade failure was estimated to be approximately 90% of the target test loads.
3. Failure observation and results
The blade failed at the transition region where the cross-sectional geometry of the blade transits from a circular shape at
the blade root to an airfoil shape at the maximum chord. Major failure covered a blade span ranging approximately from 3.5
to 5.5 m, see Fig. 3.
Visual observation of failure features are shown in Fig. 4. It was found that although failed regions exhibited a combined
form of failure, some typical failure modes, i.e., laminate fracture (LF), composite delamination (DL), sandwich skin-core debonding (DB), and core failure (CF) can be identied. It can be observed that the major LF and DL occurred at outer triaxial
laminates in the spar cap, Fig. 4(a). A clear fracture line can be observed at the intersection of spar cap and sandwich panels
as shown in Fig. 4(b). Aft panel and LE panel at the blade transition region were primarily subjected to DB and CF as shown in
Fig. 4(c).
The blade interior was also inspected and it was found that the rear shear web at the major failure regions was completely
fractured with an approximate failure angle of 45 to the blade longitudinal axis, see Fig. 4(d).


X. Chen et al. / Engineering Failure Analysis 44 (2014) 345350

p SS

LE side

Bottom: PS

Fig. 3. Final failure of the blade at the transition region.

Intersection lines of
spar cap and
d i h panels




Aft panel

Aft panel

LE panel



Spar cap

Spar cap



Spar cap

Aft panel

300 mm

TE side



Fig. 4. Failure observed at the blade transition region. (a) Typical failure modes found at the suction side. (b) Close-up of failure around 4-m blade span. (c)
Failure modes found at aft panel. (d) Failure of the rear shear web.

The blade was then sectioned at 4-m span to facilitate examination on the cross section. It was found that DL occurred not
only at triaxial laminates constituting the outer surface of the blade but also at unidirectional laminates as shown in Fig. 5(a).
Furthermore, sandwich panels exhibited DB and CF at this cross section, see Fig. 5(b) and (c).
4. Discussion
Considering that spar caps were designed to carry the primary bending moments, the catastrophic failure of the blade at
the transition region was likely caused by DL of unidirectional laminates in the spar cap which was subjected to compressive
forces in the failure test. While other failure modes, such as DL and LF of triaxial laminates at spar cap surfaces, DB and CF of
sandwich panels, were not as detrimental as DL of unidirectional laminates in the spar cap to the overall strength of the
blade, and they were regarded to be less responsible for the nal failure of the blade.

X. Chen et al. / Engineering Failure Analysis 44 (2014) 345350


DL in triaxial laminate

DL in unidirectional laminate
30 mm



20 mm



20 mm
Fig. 5. Failure observed at the 4-m cross section. (a) Spar cap at the suction side of the blade. (b) LE panel. (c) Aft panel.

It is noted that the wind turbine blades are usually regarded as thin-walled composite beams in the current design practices. Only failure stresses and failure strains parallel and transverse to the bers and for shear are necessary to be veried as
specied in GL Guideline for the Certication of Wind Turbines [10], which is widely used by wind energy industry worldwide.
Consequently, the strength of the blades is commonly analyzed by the classic thin laminate theory and the nite element


X. Chen et al. / Engineering Failure Analysis 44 (2014) 345350

models meshed by two-dimensional shell elements, which are capable to provide all necessary information required by the
Guidelines although they implicitly assume that the failure of the blades is only determined by in-plane stresses. These
assumptions are applicable to analyzing composite blades with small sizes because the through-thickness stresses in small
blades with thin laminates are negligible and only in-plane failure mode need to be considered.
However, from the investigation presented in this study, it was evident that the large blade under concern exhibited multiple failure modes in the transition region, and more importantly the blade was dominated by interfacial failure. Indeed, DL
and DB were intimately governed by the properties and stress (or strain) states of the interfaces between constituent layers.
Furthermore, in-plane failure mode, i.e., LF, which was found at the intersection of spar cap and sandwich panels, was also
signicantly affected by interlaminar stresses due to geometric and material discontinuities at this location. These observed
failure modes are essentially related to through-thickness stresses in composite laminates and sandwich constructions.
Therefore, it is impossible to predict the dominating failure modes of the blade using the classic thin laminate theory and
the shell element models neglecting the effect of through-thickness stresses.
Furthermore, in the complex structural systems like composite blades, structural strength is determined by the strength
of the weakest link. When blades are small, they exhibit single failure mode which can be analyzed easily according to the
current design practices, when blades become large, however, multiple failure modes could occur and the weakest link is not
readily known. Considering the wind energy industry trend of pursuing large blades, it is strongly recommended that the
current design practices applicable in analyzing small blades should be used with caution when the failure behavior of large
composite blades is of concern. Meanwhile, the more sophisticated thick laminate theory and the solid nite element models
are recommended in the blade analysis in order to accurately capture different failure modes related to both in-plane as well
as through-thickness stresses.
5. Conclusions and future work
Preliminary failure investigation based on visual inspection was performed on a 52.3 m glass/epoxy composite blade,
which has been loaded under static bending. Failure characteristics and the plausible root cause were identied. From this
study, the following conclusions were obtained:
The blade exhibited multiple failure modes of laminate fracture, delamination, sandwich skin-core debonding, sandwich
core failure, and shear web fracture at the transition region.
Among various failure modes, delamination of unidirectional laminates in the spar cap was identied as the plausible root
cause of the catastrophic failure of the blade.
The through-thickness stresses were found to be signicantly affect the failure behavior of this large composite blade.
The current design practices are not applicable to the strength analysis of the large blades. It is recommended that the
thick laminate theory and three-dimensional solid elements in nite element models should be used.
As continuation of this work, further study is being conducted to establish a numerical model to simulate the multiple
failure modes observed in the blade. Other studies are also planned, with the objective of identifying the process leading
to the catastrophic failure of the blade.
The authors would like acknowledge two anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments and helpful suggestions
that have led to signicant improvement of the paper.
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