A giant dedicated to turbine blade transport

The world’s largest aircraft is being custom-built to carry a very particular type of cargo: wind turbine blades. With its 108-meter length, Radia’s WindRunner, once it comes into operation in 2027, will dwarf even the much-mourned, previous record-holder, the destroyed Antonov AN-225 Mriya. That 6-engined Ukrainian work of aviation art measured a ‘mere’ 84 meters in length, in comparison.

I must admit, when I spotted the World Economic Forum (WEF)’s 1.56-minute LinkedIn video on energy company, Radia’s WindRunner project, my first thought was a dismayed “Why did they pass up on the perfect opportunity to call the aircraft ‘BladeRunner’?!” But then I expect there are possibly copyright issues on the name, and people might anyhow get the wrong message. After all, it is not a dystopian future that this plane is being developed for, but a greener one, as it will facilitate the construction and maintenance of far more efficient wind farms for cleaner energy. And the WindRunner will, itself, be powered by Sustainable Aviation Fuel.

Large enough to transport a 105-meter-long blade. Image: Radia

Bringing offshore possibilities onshore
The World Economic Forum’s JAN23 White Paper on ‘Securing the Energy Transition’, states that to reach net zero by 2050, investments in clean energy need to triple from the current USD 1.2 trillion a year to USD 4.4 trillion a year by 2030. Radia’s ‘Why Wind’ section on its website, illustrates that the fastest-growing option for green energy, is Onshore Wind. “Wind energy can meet this [24/7/365] need for consistent low-cost clean energy. It achieves this because it combines a relatively high capacity factor with low-cost power. This makes it great for traditional grid as well as non-grid applications such as data centers, and for the production of green molecules such as green hydrogen, green ammonia and sustainable aviation fuel. It will play a major role in all these applications,” it explains, going on to forecast that “as much as USD 10 trillion will be spent on onshore wind through 2050, making GigaWind the largest energy transition opportunity in the world.”

Too big for the road
Large is the key word here, not just in scope, but also physically. Today’s onshore wind turbine blades, which have doubled in size and capacity in just the last couple of decades (growing from around 40 meters in length at the start of the Millennium, to circa 70 meters, now), already pose major road transportation problems. There are many impressive, almost incredible videos online of turbine blades being carefully driven around bends, up hills and over bridges. Exceedingly valuable cargo (an average-sized commercial wind turbine can set you back around USD 2.6 million to USD 4 million), and one that requires painstaking journey planning. As Mark Lundstrom, Founder and CEO of Radia, points out: “Today, turbines are simply too big to get under bridges, through tunnels, around curves, and that’s why blades are typically limited in the 70-meter range or so onshore, whereas offshore, they’re well over 100 meters in length. Eiffel Tower-sized machines. We [will] enable the movement of gigantic blades to onshore locations with an aircraft.”

Bigger is better
Founded in Colorado, US, in 2016, Radia is promoting the implementation of GigaWind turbines, bringing the kind of energy production that is possible offshore, where turbines are much larger, to onshore locations. GigaWind turbines can generate over twice as much energy than typical turbines, and would thus make better use of the available land space. Yet, for these turbines to be erected, requires intelligent transport. Hence Radia’s mission to design and build the world’s largest aircraft. “It has the capability of moving an over 100-meter-long blade and landing on dirt within a wind farm. And by doing this, we will be able to create the path to the cheapest energy in the world,” Mark Lundstrom declares. The WEF video describes the WindRunner as having “12 times the volume of a B747” and being “as wide as a New York City block.” In a TIME interview with Justin Worland, Mark Lundstrom, himself an MIT aerospace engineer, reveals that the plane is being built using existing technologies in order to ease the engineering and subsequent certification process. What sets Radia apart – quite aside from the mega-proportions of the four-engined WindRunner with its 8,200 m³ volume (its maximum payload, on the other hand, is 72,575 kg), is that it is an energy company with its own air cargo fleet, come 2027. “Think of us as an energy company, but with a unique way to supersize turbines,” Mark Lundstrom concludes.




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