If you’re pursuing a career in wind energy, it’s likely that you will come across gearboxes. A gearbox is a vital component of a wind turbine, typically used to increase the rotational speed from a low-speed rotor to a higher-speed electrical generator.
During your wind energy program at Ecotech Institute you may hear more about gearboxes—and might even get to work with one. But, how much do you really know about this fascinating and complex piece of equipment?
A bit of background
The technology behind gearboxes might look familiar. According to a paper featured in Fundamental and Advanced Topics in Wind Power, existing gearboxes were developed from marine technology used in shipbuilding as well as locomotive technology.
A recent study found that wind turbines have a lifespan of about 25 years. Comparatively, gearboxes have a relatively short lifespan, lasting only five years. “Gearboxes are often considered the Achilles heal of wind turbines,” says Walter Christmas, wind energy technology instructor at Ecotech Institute. According to Christmas, replacing a gearbox can cost the wind farm owner up to $500,000— making gearboxes the single component with the most potential to reduce the profits of a wind farm. “Quality technicians are of great value to a wind farm owner or wind turbine manufacturer covering warranty periods of two to five years,” says Christmas.
As a result, researchers in the wind industry are working on making the equipment more reliable. “This requires a holistic approach to evaluating vibration and forces acting upon the entire drivetrain,” says Christmas. Parts within the gearboxes wear unevenly over time due to changes in inertia, which results in vibrations that are caused by the bearing and passed to other components in the drivetrain. An example of attempts to address this issue can be found in a prototype made by Aerotorque, which reduces the forces due to changing directions of inertia in the bearings.
Working with Gearboxes
Ecotech Institute has its own gearbox used to orient students with some basic maintenance work. This includes visual inspections and electrical checks on the temperature sensors. Ecotech Institute hopes to soon acquire additional equipment to give students the opportunity to practice generator alignments, which is when a technician positions the generator to be as closely aligned with the gearbox as possible to ensure trouble-free operation and efficient power transfer.
If you enjoy working with your hands, working with a gearbox might be a great future career option for you. Talk to your instructor or the program director about opportunities to observe or participate in working with a gearbox.