Hands-on Activity: Wind Power! Designing a Wind Turbine

Contributed by: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder
Landscape of wind turbines spinning wildly.
The Altamont Pass Wind Farm in California.

Summary

Students learn how engineers transform wind energy into electrical energy by building their own miniature wind turbines and measuring the electrical current it produces. They explore how design and position affect the electrical energy production.

Engineering Connection

Engineers design wind turbines to capitalize on wind as a clean, renewable and reliable source of power generation. Wind energy offers a viable, economical alternative to conventional power plants in many areas of the country. The concept of wind can also produce power in other applications, such as a turbocharger, for example, which is a compressor used in auto or jet internal-combustion engines to increase power output. A compressor increases the amount of air and fuel entering the engine because the more air a car is able intake and burn, the more power it can put out. This increased airflow (wind) can be equivocated to wind turbine generators. In fact, a turbocharger includes a turbine that powers the compressor using waste energy from the exhaust gases.

Educational Standards

  •   Colorado: Math
  •   Colorado: Science
  •   Common Core State Standards for Mathematics: Math
  •   International Technology and Engineering Educators Association: Technology
  •   Next Generation Science Standards: Science

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:
  • Describe the transformations of energy that occur in a wind turbine.
  • Describe how engineers construct a wind turbine.
  • Explain how the design and position of a wind turbine affects the electrical energy produced by it.

Materials List

Each group needs:
  • small DC toy motor (available at science or electronics supply catalogs, websites or stores)
  • 2 pieces of thin electrical wire with alligator clips (about 50 cm or 20 inches each)
  • rubber band
  • stiff ruler
  • cylindrical-shaped cork (at least 2 cm or ¾ inch in diameter)
  • 4 paper clips
  • scotch tape
  • scissors
  • 4 pieces of cardboard, each 3 cm x 5 cm
  • safety goggles or glasses (optional)
  • Wind Turbine Worksheet, one per team
For the entire class to share:
  • 1 or 2 small electric fans or hair dryers
  • DC voltmeter (available from electronics catalogs, websites or stores)

Introduction/Motivation

Have you ever felt a really strong wind? How does it feel? Have you ever felt blown around by the wind? Wind can actually do work for us by moving things around. Sometimes we do not want the wind to move things, like when it blows our papers around and we have to pick them up. But sometimes we want the wind to move things around for us. For example, when the wind moves the blades of a wind turbine (a machine that converts the moving energy of wind into mechanical energy and electrical energy), the turbine actually produces some useful energy (in the form of electricity).
Let's talk about what happens to get electricity from the wind. First of all, to change the wind energy to electricity, rotor blades spin the hub (center) of the turbine. Inside the turbine is an electric generator, which is a rotating machine that supplies an electrical output with voltage and current. The rotating action of the hub turns a magnet inside a coil of wire in the generator, producing electricity.
A turbine is basically a motor connected backwards. Rather than connecting a battery to the motor to make something move, a wind turbine is connected to the motor, and its movement generates electricity. You can measure how much electricity (voltage) is produced with a voltmeter.
Engineers design wind turbines that turn the kinetic energy of the wind (the movement of the wind) into mechanical or electrical power.
So, when does a wind turbine work best? The power produced by a wind turbine depends on elevation, wind speed and air temperature. Wind speeds of at least 23 kilometers (14 miles) per hour are required to generate electricity. Wind turbines are best located in areas in which wind speeds are 26-32 kph (16-20 mph) with the windmill at 50 meters (55 yards) high. That's pretty high up. The greater the wind speed, the more power generated. Think about it, when the wind blows harder, those papers move around even faster. If the wind speed doubles, the power available to a wind turbine increases by a factor of eight. That means the power doubles and doubles and doubles again!
Today, we are going to be engineers and create a wind turbine that converts wind energy connected to a motor into electrical energy (voltage). Then, we will measure how the wind speed affects our little wind turbine. This will help us understand what engineers need to know when designing and placing wind turbines in the best locations.

Vocabulary/Definitions

electrical energy: Electrical energy exists when charged particles attract or repel each other. Television sets, computers and refrigerators use electrical energy.
energy: The ability to do work.
generator: A device that transforms mechanical energy into electrical energy.
hub: The center part of a wheel, fan or propeller.
kinetic energy: The energy of motion. For example, a spinning top, a falling object and a rolling ball all have kinetic energy. The motion, if resisted by a force, does work. Wind and water both have kinetic energy.
mechanical energy: Mechanical energy is energy that can be used to do work. It is the sum of an object's kinetic and potential energy.
potential energy: Potential energy is the energy stored by an object as a result of its position. A roller coaster at the top of a hill has potential energy.
renewable energy: Energy that is made from sources that can be regenerated. Sources include solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, ocean and hydro (water).
rotor: The rotating part of an electrical or mechanical device.
turbine: A machine in which the kinetic energy of a moving fluid is converted into mechanical energy by causing a series of buckets, paddles or blades on a rotor to rotate.
voltmeter: An instrument that measures electromotor force in units called volts.
wind turbine: A machine that converts the moving energy of wind into mechanical and/or electrical energy.

Procedure

Before the Activity

  • It is helpful to build and test a wind turbine in advance, to use as an example.
  • Gather materials and make copies of the Wind Turbine Worksheet.
  • Attach wires to the DC motors.
  • Set up a measuring station, with a voltmeter and a wind source (fan or hair dryer), for student teams to take turns measuring the output of their wind turbine generator.
  • Test to make sure the motors and voltmeters are working accurately.

With the Students

  1. Divide the class into teams of two students each. Provide each team with materials and a work space.
  2. Emphasize safety precautions. Students should never touch any bare or exposed metal in a circuit that is generating electricity.
  3. Have the students use a rubber band to attach the electric motor to the ruler with the motor shaft positioned at the end of the ruler (see Figure 1). The ruler serves as a platform for the wind turbine.
Sketch showing a voltmeter, wires, ruler, motor, rubber band, cork, paper clips and cardboard pieces.
Figure 1. The activity set up: A wind turbine prototype hooked to a voltmeter.
  1. Straighten out the lower part of each of four paper clips.
  2. Cut out four, 3 cm x 5 cm pieces of cardboard. Use tape to firmly attach a piece of cardboard to each paper clip.
  3. Stick the straightened part of each paper clip into the curved sides of a cork, closer to the small end of the cork, to create four turbine blades. Be sure to space the blades equally around the small end of the cork.
  4. Push the large end of the cork into the motor shaft. Make sure the shaft goes into the exact center of the cork.
  5. Rotate the blade in the cork so that it is at a 45º angle to the flat plane of the edge of the ruler. You have completed your wind turbine.
    Photo shows a voltmeter, wires, ruler, motor, rubber band, cork, paper clips and cardboard pieces.
    Figure 2. Activity set-up
  6. In teams, have the students bring their wind turbine to the measuring station.
  7. For one team at a time, attach free ends of wires to a DC voltmeter using the alligator clips. While waiting, have other teams work on the Wind Turbine Worksheet.
  8. Start by placing the wind turbine about 30 cm (12 inches) away from the wind source (fan or hair dryer). Adjust the distance, depending on the strength of the wind source.
  9. Turn on the wind source and measure the voltage produced. Record on the Wind Turbine Worksheet.
  10. Repeat with the wind turbine at different distances from the wind source.
  11. Have student team members work together to complete the worksheet.
  12. After all teams have a turn at the measuring station, and have completed their worksheets, conclude with a class discussion. Describe the movement of energy in your generator, starting with the wind and ending at the voltmeter. Review each team's results and observations. Did the turbine design of any team produce more voltage at the same distance, compared to the rest? Did anyone adjust the angle of the blades? What did that do? What happened as you moved your wind turbine closer or further away from the wind source? How might you alter your turbine design or position to better capture the wind and produce more voltage? What factors would engineers consider when deciding where to put a wind turbine generator or a wind farm?

Safety Issues

  • Emphasize safety precautions. Students should never touch any bare or exposed metal in a circuit that is generating electricity.
  • Remind them not to put anything, including their hands, near the wind turbine or fan while it is rotating.

Troubleshooting Tips

In advance of the activity, test the motors and voltmeters so that they are working accurately.
If the activity does not work properly try the following alternative: Attach DC motor to a wheel, duct tape two Popsicle sticks to the wheel to form a straight line, duct tape a rectangular piece of cardboard to each Popsicle stick, at such an angle as to create spin when wind blows past it, tape motor to a ruler to serve as handle.
If there is a time restraint, speed up the activity by bringing in two fans to provide two measuring stations.

Assessment

Pre-Activity Assessment

Brainstorming: Have students engage in open discussion to think of how wind could be used as an energy source. Remind them that no idea or suggestion is "silly." All ideas should be respectfully heard. Write their ideas on the board.

Activity Embedded Assessment

Worksheet: Have students record their measurements and observations on the Wind Turbine Worksheet. After they have completed the worksheet, review their answers to gauge their mastery of the subject.

Post-Activity Assessment

Question/Answer: Ask the students and discuss as a class:
  • When can wind power be used? (Answer: The wind must have a high enough speed.)
  • Why might an engineer be interested in developing wind power in a location? (Answer: Wind is a renewable energy resource. Wind power does not produce greenhouse gases or pollution. Using wind power reduces the consumption of non-renewable fossil fuels.)
  • Why are large wind turbines often located on hills? (Answer: Wind speed is greater up high above the ground.)
  • If we remove the motor from the rotor of the wind turbine, we will not be able to produce electricity, but we will still be able to do work with our windmill. What kind of work could we do? (Answer: We could do mechanical work by making the blades of the windmill move.)
Engineer Challenge Question: Ask the students to think about the following engineering design problem. Have them discuss their answers in teams and share their thoughts with the class.
  • A homeowner wants to use a wind turbine to supply electricity for her home, but there are no hills near the house. Where could an engineer place the wind turbine? (Answer: As high up as possible, such as on a pole above the roof, or on a separate structure that puts it up very high in the air.)

Activity Extensions

Have students design their own set of blades, varying the size, shape, material and number. Have students attach these new blades to the motor and adjust them at various angles to produce the greatest voltage. Have them record their variables and results in a data chart they create during the activity. Have students share and compare their designs by giving brief engineering reports to the class.
Explore how wind velocity affects the amount of electricity produced by changing fan speeds.
Explore the Renewable Energy Living Lab for real wind measurement, energy collections systems and real-world data. See: http://www.teachengineering.org/livinglabs/

Activity Scaling

  • For lower grades, have the motor setup already prepared. Just have the students create the blades on the paper clips and press them into the cork. Help the students measure the voltage of their wind turbines.
  • For upper grades, have the students graph the voltage produced as a function of distance from the fan. Have the students solve the power problems in the Wind Power! Math Worksheet.

References

Buy into Wind and Fight Global Warming! Clean Air-Cool Planet. http://www.cleanair-coolplanet.org/action/windbuilders.php Accessed October 20, 2005. (Good photographs of the first large utility-scale wind turbine being installed on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation)

Renewable Energy Lesson Plans. Infinite Power, Texas State Energy Conservation Office. http://www.infinitepower.org/lessonplans.htm Accessed October 19, 2005.

How Wind Turbines Work. Updated October 3, 2005. Wind & Hydropower Technologies Program, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, U.S. Department of Energy. http://www1.eere.energy.gov/wind/wind_animation.html Accessed October 19, 2005. (Great animation of a wind turbine generating electricity)

Contributors

Xochitl Zamora-Thompson, Sabre Duren, Natalie Mach, Malinda Schaefer Zarske, Denise W. Carlson

Copyright

© 2005 by Regents of the University of Colorado.

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

Acknowledgements

The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under grants from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation (GK-12 grant no. 0338326). However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: May 21, 2015

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