A new fully recyclable wind turbine blade could cut down on the waste issue that troubles wind power’s sustainability.
As the search continues for a viable and efficient sustainable energy source to replace the burning of depleted and environmentally damaging fossil fuels, wind power is rapidly becoming an energy source to watch.
There are clear advantages to wind power. Primarily, wind power is clean, causes no air pollution or greenhouse gases. It’s cost-effective, representing one of the lowest-priced energy sources per kilowatt. And as it is caused by the heating of the earth’s atmosphere by the Sun and the rotation of the planet, wind power is inexhaustible.
It is for these reasons that wind power has become the fastest-growing energy source in the US, with the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy reporting¹ that capacity has grown by 15% in the states over the past few years to become the nation’s largest sustainable energy source.
So far, so good, but wind power isn’t without its drawbacks. Arguably, the most substantial of these is the volume of waste that the technology creates. This arises through the fact it is necessary to frequently replace turbine blades, with no current viable method of recycling old blades.
Thankfully, wind turbine manufacturer Vestas Wind Systems could have a solution. The Danish company has unveiled new technology, which they say results in fully recyclable blades and makes the dumping of old parts a thing of the past².
In a statement issued by the company Allan Poulsen, Vestas’ head of sustainability and advanced materials, says, “The new technology will be a significant milestone in enabling a future where landfill is no longer required in blade decommissioning.”
The Cutting Edge
The problem of discarded wind turbine blades is no small issue. Whilst the majority of the rest of a wind turbine can be repurposed, the blades currently can’t. At least not in a way that is economically viable.
It’s estimated that this could result in as much as 720 thousand tons of discarded blade material finding its way to US landfills in the next two decades.
A stark reminder of this waste problem exists at the KimballWind Project, in Nebraska. The land surrounding the state’s first wind farm is littered with discarded turbine parts, including blades as large as 127 feet long.
These blades are both tricky and expensive to transport and serve no other purpose. Thus they are broken down from as long as 300 feet in length and left on-site. This is the situation at many wind farms across the US.
Even when these blades can hit landfills, they still cause a multitude of problems, not least of which is the fact they take up a huge amount of space. Vestas suggests the solution to this is their fully-recyclable blades.
What Goes Around Comes Around
The Denmark-based company’s recyclable wind turbine blade is the result of a collaboration with chemical producer Olin, who already creates resin for turbine blades.
The blades are created with carbon fiber and glass, which are mixed in a sticky epoxy resin. This results in a strong, but lightweight material which is then heated.
The composite that results from this process is hard to separate and thus should be challenging to recycle, but this is where the real revolutionary aspect of the technology enters the picture.
Vestas’ new technology can separate the glass or carbon fiber from the resin — described as the separation of the thermoset materials from the epoxy. From here, a new chemcycling process can break down the epoxy allowing the separation of other elements and breaking the blade down into constituents closely resembling those that went it its production. These materials can then be used to create fresh new blades.
As global commitments to a net-zero future increase, it’s absolutely crucial to ensure the wind industry can scale sustainably, which includes Vestas fulfilling our ambition to produce zero-waste turbines by 2040. Leveraging this new technological breakthrough in chemcycling epoxy resin, the CETEC project will be a significant milestone in Vestas’ journey towards achieving this goal, and in enabling a future where landfill is no longer required in blade decommissioning.
Allan Korsgaard Poulsen, Head of Sustainability and Advanced Materials, Vestas Innovation and Concepts
Though clearly a major boost for the sustainability of wind power, the breakthrough technology could also have applications in aircraft manufacturing and in the automobile industry. Vestas hopes to bring their wind turbine blades to market within the next three years.
1. Advantages and Challenges of Wind Energy, the Office of ENERGY EFFICIENCY & RENEWABLE ENERGY, [https://www.energy.gov/eere/wind/advantages-and-challenges-wind-energy].
2. New coalition of industry and academia to commercialize solution for full recyclability of wind turbine blades, Vestas, [https://www.vestas.com/en/media/company-news?n=3974601#!NewsView]