A PhD candidate from Monash University in Melbourne will head to America later this year to join forces with engineers and researchers at the world-renowned Princeton University to initiate a collaborative research project in biologically inspired wind power technology.

Abel-John Buchner, who studies in the Laboratory for Turbulence Research in Aerospace and Combustion (LTRAC) at the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, has been awarded a prestigious Fulbright Postgraduate Scholarship.

Buchner will spend 12 months working with fluid dynamics expert Professor Alexander Smits, extending and applying his PhD research into biological propulsion to further understand the behaviour of wind turbines.

Wind power is an increasingly important part of Australia’s energy-producing sector, with recent data indicating that wind power in Australia has become cheaper for electricity generation than the key fossil fuels of coal and natural gas.

Traditional wind turbines nonetheless pose a number of daunting technical challenges which threaten to limit further growth of wind-based renewable energy.

“My work focuses on an unsteady aerodynamic phenomenon called dynamic stall, and though my research to date has been related to the aerospace industry, I have found that dynamic stall is surprisingly universal in flows both natural and man-made,” Buchner said. “Dynamic stall affects the forces produced by the flapping wings of birds and insects and the caudal fins of marine vertebrates, and also affects the efficiency, force and noise production of helicopters rotors, wind turbines and other rapidly moving mechanical systems.”

Abel John Buchner

Abel John Buchner

By researching the dynamic stall of the wings of birds, he hopes to gain a better understanding of flows over wind turbine blades, leading to better designs for renewable energy technology.

Experiments focusing on flow separation during dynamic stall and the stability and transition of the flow towards a turbulent state will help develop biologically inspired predictive models for wind turbine design.

“Understanding strategies found in nature to either reduce or control dynamic stall has the potential to significantly enhance the efficiency of wind turbines whilst also reducing noise and mechanical vibration,” Buchner said. “Bio-inspired design, utilising naturally evolved approaches to fluid flow, can provide us with elegant solutions to complex engineering problems.”

The prestigious Fulbright program, the largest educational scholarship of its kind, was created by US Senator J. William Fulbright and the US Government in 1946. Aimed at promoting mutual understanding through educational exchange, it operates between the USA and 155 countries.

Other recent research into improving wind turbine design has seen General Electrics investigate a solution which employs lightweight, architectural fabrics wrapped around a metal frame. Wind turbine blades are traditionally made of fibreglass, which is heavier, more labour and time-intensive and does not easily allow for diameters of more than 120 metres.

A German engineering firm has also erected the world’s first wooden wind turbine tower in Hanover, a 100-metre-tall multi-megawatt wind turbine that can produce electricity for about 1,000 households.