Germany’s Covestro makes wind energy breakthrough in Shanghai
Company expects R&D innovation to reduce turbine costs and boost wind power competitiveness
Covestro, one of the world’s largest makers of polymer, a group of base chemicals used in many manufacturing industries, says it has developed a new material to make wind turbine blades stronger and cheaper to build, and enhance wind power’s cost competitiveness.
The Germany-headquartered company has successfully developed in Shanghai the first polyurethane rotor blade for wind turbines globally, Samir Hifri, Covestro’s head of supply chain centre for Asia-Pacific and managing director of its Hong Kong office told the Post in an interview.
A demonstration blade has been produced by its business partner in Inner Mongolia autonomous region, and is expected to be installed in turbines for prototyping later this year in a wind farm in northwestern China, he said.
“We are partnering with top turbine and blade producers in China,” he said. “Several projects are ongoing in parallel and polyurethane-based blades will be installed in various locations in China in 2017.”
Such blades are 20 to 40 per cent stronger and more durable than existing ones made with epoxy material, he claimed, adding the polyurethane material has recently been certified by international certification body DNV.
“We are working with WINDnovation Engineering Solutions, the leading rotor blade designer in the world, to quantify the benefits of polyurethane under different circumstances,” Hifri said, adding Covestro has patented the materials infusion technology for this application.
Covestro is also working on marketing the material to its customers in China and elsewhere.
The new manufacturing method increases the durability and longevity of wind blades that are often exposed to harsh weather conditions, and speeds up the process for making the blades “significantly,” Hifri said.
This helps cut their production cost compared to traditional blades, and allow blades to be made lighter but longer so that they can generate more power, since the wind can push against a greater area of the blade, he added.
China has the world’s largest wind power generation capacity and also some of the largest wind turbine makers. The country accounted for 15 per cent of Covestro’s global sales in 2015.
Hifri said the “innovation” was developed by the company’s Shanghai research and development centre, set up in 2001.
Together with production facilities, Covestro has accumulatively invested around €3 billion (HK$24.8 billion) in China.
“When we set up the R&D centre, it was located in some farmland in the outskirts of Pudong, Shanghai,” he said. “At the time, the primary purpose was around taking solutions for the automotive and construction sectors invented in Europe and North America and adapt them to the local needs in China.”
“But now it is totally different, we are doing research and development projects that are not only supporting [our business in] China but elsewhere in the world.”
He said Covestro’s Chinese customers have become “much more demanding” over the years, not only seeking to have material solutions already commercialised abroad, but also those that are most relevant to the China market.
The 37.5-metre, 6-tonne rotor blade that Covestro helped make was fabricated with its “special polyurethane infusion resin” and “glass fibre mats” from glass fibre maker Chongqing Polycomp International, he added.
Infusion of the materials was made possible with a “vacuum pressure infusion” system developed by German process technology developer Hubers.
“This is the first time we were able to invent a solution for the wind energy sector,” Hifir said. “We tried for a number of years ... in fact, our colleagues in Germany had kind of given up on finding a solution to this, but we gave the project to our Chinese researchers who achieved success.”
Establishment of the research centre in Shanghai and the subsequent “courageous” decision to relocate Covestro’s global business hub for polycarbonate products from Germany to Shanghai in 2011 have helped the company understand its customers’ needs better, he said.
“Our management believes strongly that in order to be closer to the customers of the largest market, it is important to be as physically close to them as possible [to facilitate] projects execution and innovation,” he said.
China is the largest market globally for polycarbonate, a class of chemicals often used in car parts to make vehicles lighter and more fuel-efficient while retaining strength and safety features.
Covestro is 69 per cent-owned by German drugmaker Bayer, which has indicated a plan to completely divest its stake in Covestro after its separate listing on the stock market in October 2015, without giving a time frame.
Some US$1.7 billion from the initial public offering was mainly used to repay debt owed to Bayer, so that the latter can deploy more resources to develop its health care and pesticide businesses.