Thanks to $1.1 million in funding from the Department of Energy’s Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program and Wind Energy Technologies Office, the University of Tennessee is now developing a new technology for the large-scale recycling of wind turbine blades into new recycled composites.
This new technology recovers the glass fiber from reinforced polymer composites while limiting mechanical degradation of the fiber during the reclamation process. This in turn allows the recycled fiber to be reused in new composite applications such as vehicle lightweighting, other renewable energy systems components, and performance sports equipment.
“It’s not a mystery why wind energy is now America’s largest domestic source of renewable energy,” said Ryan Ginder, research assistant professor in UT’s Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering and lead researcher on the project. “Wind power is clean, economical, and readily available right here in the USA, but it still has a problem; to make those giant iconic blades, wind turbine manufacturers rely on advanced polymer composites. These materials can survive some of mother nature’s most brutal forces but, eventually, do wear out and end up in the landfill. As the wind industry grows and waste blade levels climb into the tens, hundreds of thousands of tons and beyond, a better end of life solution is needed rather than simply piling them at the dump.”
While the US wind industry has made substantial contributions to America’s renewable energy portfolio, as highlighted by American Wind Week 2020 currently being celebrated across the country, work remains ongoing to convert the industry to a more circular economy paradigm.
“Rather than simply downcycling the blades into worthless aggregates, we are able to not only convert the blades’ organic components into useful petrochemicals for energy production, but also able to extract the glass fiber reinforcement and use it to make higher value recycled composites,” said Ginder.
UT has partnered with Carbon Rivers LLC, a start-up company located in Knoxville and owned by UT alumnus Bowie Benson, to further develop and commercialize this novel glass fiber recovery technology for the purpose of handling retired wind turbine blades.
“Having the opportunity to collaborate with the bright minds at UT, like Dr. Ginder, and catalyze new solutions for our country’s plastics waste problem, is a Volunteer’s dream come true,” said Benson. “2020 has been a challenging year all around for our community, but I remain hopeful for the future as long as we keep working together to take on the tough challenges, like making American energy more sustainable. I am especially optimistic for our project’s next phase, and its potential to transformatively improve the wind industry’s environmental footprint while creating new, much-needed jobs in East Tennessee.”
Over the next two years, the UT-Carbon Rivers team will be collaborating with partners including Berkshire Hathaway Energy’s MidAmerican Energy Company and PacifiCorp to develop a pilot scale glass fiber composite recycling system that will serve as the basis for eventual deployment of a full-scale commercial wind blade waste processing plant.