A multi-company collaboration that produces recyclable wind turbines has borne fruit after the consortium produced the prototype of its fully recyclable wind turbine, GE said in its press release.
As the world looks to meet its energy demands from renewable sources, the production of solar and wind power infrastructure has ballooned. While these platforms help in reducing emissions, they are creating problems of their own in terms of the waste generated, once their lifetimes are completed.
What are wind turbines made of?
While the towers used to hoist the turbines are made of steel that is recyclable, the blades of the turbines and the nacelle that holds the parts critical to the function of the turbines are not that environment-friendly. The blades of the turbine are designed to be lightweight and see extensive use of fiberglass and thermosetting plastic foam in them.
A wind turbine can typically last 20-25 years after which it must be replaced. Estimates suggest that over the period of the next 20 years, over 720,000 tonnes of turbines will exit their service and the waste will need to be managed.
When faced with the magnanimity of the situation, building bridges out of retired turbines does not come across as a long-term strategy to deal with them.
In September of 2020, LM Wind Power, a GE's renewable energy company, brought together innovative minds from manufacturing, material sciences, and recycling domains under one project called Zero wastE Blade ReseArch or ZEBRA to make the wind turbines as recyclable as possible.
After more than a year of material development and testing and sub-component level trials, the consortium has designed and built the world's largest thermoplastic blade at LM Wind Power's manufacturing facility in Spain.
The 203 foot (62 m) blade uses thermoplastic resin from Arkema and glass fabrics, from Owens Corning, partner companies in the ZEBRA project. By combining the two, the project claims to achieve the performance levels of a regular wind turbine with the added benefit of being recycled at the end of its lifetime.
In this unique method, the resin used in the turbine blade can be chemically treated to depolymerize and separate from the fiber, which can be reused again. In addition to this, the production method is automated which has the benefit of reduced waste as well as energy consumption.
The project will now conduct full-scale structural lifetime testing of the blades following which the recycling methods will also be validated, the press release said. The validation is expected to be completed by 2023, after which full-scale production of recyclable wind turbines can begin.