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Science and Technology

Exploradio - Outwitting ice
A technology invented to prevent icing on airplanes is being adapted to the international wind industry
This story is part of a special series.

Reporter / Host
Jeff St. Clair
The massive turbine blades are 150 feet long. Ice build-up can damage the turbine and prevent the blades from spinning.
Courtesy of Erik Pederson
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In The Region:

A small Northeast Ohio company is a world leader in developing a deicing technology for wind turbines.  But it didn’t happen overnight.

In this week’s Exploradio, we look at how innovation is equal parts dogged determination and just winging it.

Exploradio - Outwitting ice

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It’s a problem as old as aviation.  Moisture in the air freezes on the wings of a small aircraft…and the combination can be deadly.

One solution, invented 90 years ago by B.F. Goodrich in Akron, is still widely used to fight wing ice.   A rubber covering on the front of the wing called a boot is inflated to knock ice off the wings’ leading edge.  But wing boots have  limitations: ice can cling to the rubber, or a small hole in the boot can prevent inflation.      

Erik Pederson, lead engineer of Kelly Aerospace in Willoughby, says the idea for a new solution came from a man named Bob Rutherford.

“And he was a NASA test pilot, he goes up and tests pneumatic boots in deicing scenarios, and he was tired of looking at pneumatic boots and seeing ice still on the boot when he would operate them because it doesn’t always take it all off.”

At the time Rutherford owned Northcoast Technologies.   In 2001, Rutherford invented a deicing system that places a paper thin graphite strip on the front of a wing. When zapped with electricity, it heats up to melt ice. Rutherford sold Northcoast to Kelly Aerospace in 2005, and the company now retrofits small aircraft with the deicing strips at its hanger in Willoughby. 

Pederson says another industry has caught wind of the deicing success.

“We were contacted by a company in Sweden that was having trouble with their turbines because they were iced up three months out of the year.”

Pederson says the push for renewable wind energy in Sweden was running into the realities of a northern climate. 

“You would see ice 2, 3-feet thick on the leading edge of the blade as it built up in the winter. And (at) that point they were cracking blades, they were damaging gear boxes; they can’t operate and produce power.”

Pederson upscaled the technology used on airplane wings to deice the massive 150-foot-long turbine blades.

He installed the graphite deicers along the edge of the blades. They draw their  power from the turbine itself.  Pederson says the final wiring was the moment of truth.

“I think the biggest difficulty was getting them to allow us to drill holes in their blades to pass electricity through.”

His clients’ trust extends to  the deicing system being operated  from thousands of miles away.

We step into Pederson’s office overlooking the hanger where he fires up his laptop.

“We’re logging in now.”

Last fall, Pederson installed his deicing system on one of the 33 turbines in Caribou Wind Park in New Brunswick, Canada, where, as in Sweden, winter can be brutal.  When ice forms on the blades, he turns on the heaters remotely from Ohio.  The Canadians are interested in his prototype as an alternative to their expensive, brute force method of handling ice.

“Literally they take a high-pressure power washer, like you would clean your house or driveway off with, put it on the end of a helicopter boom, increase the scale a bit, and spray the ice off the turbines.”

 Pederson says if his deicing system succeeds, his business could grow 20 to 30 times overnight, easily eclipsing the aircraft side of the business.

“We’re about 90 percent of the way there to a technology that can be reliable enough to last 10 to15 years.”

Pederson says developing new technology requires a special relationship with a client willing to take risks.

“You know you learn as you go. But what do they say in R&D? ‘It doesn’t stand for research and development, it’s run and duck.’ But it’s fun.  It’s something new, you get to work on the cutting edge.”

Pederson and Kelly Aerospace are also working with developers of a proposed offshore wind farm in Lake Erie, where we know Ohio’s winter can produce plenty of ice.

I’m Jeff St.Clair with this week’s Exploradio.

Related Links & Resources
Kelly Aerospace website

NPR - Lake Erie wind turbines

Related WKSU Stories

Exploradio: From the belly of the beast
Monday, September 30, 2013

Exploradio - How to change the light bulb
Monday, January 30, 2012

Listener Comments:

this was a major concern and now it's solved!!

Posted by: Sandra (NE Ohio) on February 16, 2012 5:02AM
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