SWEDEN In golden rain confetti, Thomas Stalin, technical expert at Vattenfall Wind, proudly accepted the first prize in the innovation competition “Looking for the Next Unicorn” when the final was decided at Vattenfalls headquarters in Stockholm.

A clever way of checking for wear in the gearboxes of wind turbines won the award after the jury was finally able to agree after long deliberation.

“It’s such a simple and brilliant idea that I was almost jealous. Why didn’t it occur to me?” said jury chairman Mattias Tingvall when he congratulated Thomas Stalin, whose innovation will save millions of kronor.

Thomas Stalin, tech expert at Vattenfall Wind

Filter outside a filter
A five-centimetre round filter disc fixed rather like a plaster onto the outside of the filter that sieves the oil in wind turbine gearboxes makes it easy to see the number of iron particles retained by the filter, showing which turbines suffer from increased wear.

“Each gearbox in a wind turbine costs 2 million Swedish kronor– that’s 2 billion kronor (~200 million euro) for a thousand wind turbines. If we can prolong their operating life by a year simply by changing the oil in good time in those showing abnormal wear, we can save 200 million kronor,” says Thomas Stalin.

He got the idea while walking in the woods outside Ålborg in Denmark with a former Danish colleague from the oil laboratory of the North Jutland plant, Hans Möller, and thinking about how mechanical wear could be discovered more easily and in good time.

“It’s actually quite hard to see whether modern wind turbines are suffering from abnormal wear, as the particles are filtered out by efficient filters,” he says.

Many possible winners
Thomas Stalin’s idea easily satisfied the jury’s three criteria: it must be reasonably feasible, save time and money and be truly innovative, i.e. be an outstanding idea which drives developments forward.

But his idea was by no means unique in these respects.

"The presentations of all nine finalists each had points that caught the eye of the jury members, and all of them were discussed as possible winners," Mattias Tingvall says.

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