Innovation is the watchword of mechatronics. The pressure for solutions in alternative energy continue to push the boundaries of design in electromechanical systems.
In the wind energy arena the biggest change has been the shift to direct drive permanent magnet generators. By eliminating the gear “increaser” to convert the low RPM of the propeller system to a high RPM for a standard high power generator. This is crucial step in bringing the cost of wind power down. Current systems are weighing in at 100 tons and have to be suspended above water or land 165 feet in order to pick up sufficient wind currents to be economically practical.
There is no single solution that is ideal for wind applications. One supplier has a generator that is made up of 4 smaller units on a single large ring gear. This system seems to have significant advantages in reducing the size and weight of the generator and makes maintenance more simple in the event of a failure.
Among the major mechatronic challenges driving change in the motor industry, electric vehicle applications are continually pushing the boundary for energy density and efficiency. The performance demands of electric vehicles and other mobility applications make every percentage point of efficiency crucial to the range of the target vehicle. This has led to a rash of new motor and drivetrain designs with a variety performance capabilities.
Each new innovation seeks to organize the basic materials of the electric motor in a new way to improve some aspect of performance. Electric motors are copper conductors, “soft” magnetic steels and many times, permanent magnets. The basic costs for copper wire at $5-6 a pound, commodity strip steel is about $.50 per pound but has to be punched in precise shapes, coated with insulation and stacked into larger assemblies, and $16. per pound for permanent magnets. Complex processes associated with motor manufacturing make motor costs considerable.
In a recent development teams in academia in Australia and the US have developed simple low RPM motor structures based on polymer actuators referred to as “artificial muscle”. While this development is in its early phases, the simplicity and low cost are significant and very appealing. A demonstration of the new technology can be seen on YouTube at; www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZcCPNJR5PCMand it is very much worth the watch.
The only sure thing is that we continue to meet the challenge of new market needs with innovation.