Leading the Way in the Wind Industry
Nearly 58,000 wind turbines dot the American landscape. Nearly 50 percent of those now use AMSOIL synthetic lubricants in their gearboxes. Here is the story of how AMSOIL shook up the wind industry.
We dove into the wind market more than a decade ago for the same reasons we enter most markets: to solve a problem. At the time, wind farm managers were struggling to fins awind turbine gearbox lubricant capable of delivering superior protection without requiring frequent and expensive changes. Fully appreciating the challenge requires understanding how a wind turbine gearbox works.
Wind turbine gearbox 101
If you’ve ever driven past a wind farm, you’ve noticed how slowly wind turbine blades turn – typically 10-18 rpm. The generator inside the turbine’s nacelle (the housing atop the tower), however, requires up to 1,500 rpm to produce the turbine’s rated power. The gearbox increases rotational speed from the low-rpm turbine blades to the high-rpm electric generator. It uses a variety of planetary gears, helical gears and bearings to accomplish this.
All those moving parts must withstand tremendous torque and high speeds while operating in hot, humid, wet environments or sub-zero temperatures – sometimes all of the above throughout the year. Gear lube can quickly fail in such conditions. That was precisely the case with the predominant windturbine gear lube on the market at the time. It tended to absorb moisture, which led to additives separating from the lubricant (called additive dropout). This leads to a form of fatigue failure called micropitting that can cause gears to fail. In fact, at that time, a wind-farm manager could expect 30-40 percent of the gearboxes in his turbines to fail within three to five years. This is unacceptable considering that, along with crane costs, replacing a wind turbine gearbox costs up to $500,000.
To help prolong gearbox life, managers resorted to frequent gear-lube changes – typically every two to three years. That may not sound unreasonable until you understand the toll a single lubricant change takes. First, the turbine has to be shut down, which reduces profitability. A team of trained technicians must then mobilize a specially designed truck capable of pumping the new lubricant to the gearbox (up to 300 feet above the ground) while draining the old oil. Not only that, the gearbox requires flushing to remove contaminants, which adds additional time and complexity. Changing oil in just one gearbox can cost thousands of dollars. Changing oil in every gearbox on a wind farm quickly becomes cost-prohibitive.
AMSOIL Building a better lubricant
We went to work developing a better gear lubricant. In addition to years of lab testing, the lubricant was installed in seven wind turbines located in the Midwest. The turbines had been using a competitor’s oil and were in rough shape. In fact, the wind farm manager later told us he had expected the gearboxes to fail within six months of testing. Instead, the AMSOIL product performed well and the turbines continued running. We monitored lubricant and turbine performance every month. The process uncovered several costly hurdles to servicing wind farms. For example, personnel must complete safety training, earn certification and carry millions of dollars of liability insurance simply to set foot on a wind farm, let alone climb a tower. In addition, wind farm managers expect suppliers to act as technical consultants and help them develop procedures for improving efficiency. AMSOIL quickly realized that servicing wind farms requires a team of full-time, specialized experts.
Despite years of severe service, the lubricant continued performing flawlessly. In total, the lubricant was in use for nine years without being changed and without incident. Recently, the wind farm elected to decommission the seven turbines to perform infrastructure upgrades; however, the lubricant was still in great condition and performing well until its final day of use.
Our test data impressed the biggest and most prestigious manufacturers in the world. We have since earned approvals from nearly every major turbine manufacturer and gearbox manufacturer, including Siemens*, Vestas*, Flender*, Nanjing Gear* and ZF*. This was a huge step since wind farm managers won’t use non-approved oils in their turbines given the astronomical costs should something fail. Our gear lube is also the factory fill for one of the world's largest turbine manufacturers, as well as the run-in oil at nearly every major gearbox OEM that supplies the global wind industry. AMSOIL continues to work toward earning more factory-fill agreements. AMSOIL products are now installed in nearly 50 percent of all wind turbines in the U.S. in addition to turbines in Europe, China, India, Brazil and more. We’re proud to say that AMSOIL products have never caused a gearbox failure. That’s a tremendous achievement considering the state of the industry prior to our arrival.
Increased expertise influences all AMSOIL products
The insights that have been gleaned from AMSOIL's involvement in the wind industry influence additional product formulations. For example, we applied the advanced chemistry of our wind-turbine gear lubricant to the passenger car/light truck market via SEVERE GEAR® Synthetic Gear Lube. The chemistry that impressed the toughest critics in one of the world’s most demanding industries influenced the chemistry in each easy-pack of SEVERE GEAR. Developing and testing synthetic technology in wind turbines builds our knowledge and helps us continue to improve our full line of world-class synthetic lubricants.
*All trademarked names and images are the property of their respective owners and may be registered marks in some countries. No affliliation or endorsement claim, expressed or implied, is made by their use. All products advertised here are developed by AMSOIL for use in the applications shown.