The world’s largest wind turbine manufacturer, Vestas, has just announced a novel process for turning old wind turbine blades into new ones, and considering the amount of ink spilled pointing out that blades which reach their end of life (25 years or so) are “piling up” in landfills, this could be a game-changer for wind power.
Although 85% or more of wind turbine components can already be reused or recycled, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “The mixed nature of the blade material makes separating the plastics from the glass fibers to recycle into a workable fiberglass material difficult — and the strength needed for the blades means they are also physically challenging to break apart.”
The “novel chemical disassembly process” that Vestas announced, which could disassemble the epoxy resin components of old wind turbine blades into raw materials that could potentially be used as feedstock for new blades, is a promising development. According to the company, which helped develop the process through a joint effort along with Aarhus University, Danish Technological Institute, and Olin, it can “chemically break down epoxy resin into virgin-grade materials.”
This could be a huge step toward commercializing a “circularity solution” for the wind energy industry, considering the fact that an estimated 25,000 tonnes of wind turbine blades will reach their end-of-life annually by 2025.
“The newly discovered chemical process shows that epoxy-based turbine blades, whether in operation or sitting in landfill, can be turned into a source of raw material to potentially build new turbine blades. As the chemical process relies on widely available chemicals, it is highly compatible for industrialisation, and can therefore be scaled up quickly. This innovation would not have been possible without the ground-breaking CETEC collaboration between industry and academia enabling our progress until this point.” — Mie Elholm Birkbak, Specialist, Innovation & Concepts at Vestas
The process is a result of an initiative called CETEC (Circular Economy for Thermosets Epoxy Composites), which was established in May of 2021 by Aarhus University, Danish Technological Institute, Olin, and Vestas, which was formed to address the need for recycling technology for epoxy resins. The initiative “strives for full circularity” by enabling the use of recycled materials of old blades as feedstock for the production of new wind turbine 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
Of course, like the announcement of many new technologies, the path from the lab to the factory isn’t always quick or easy (and can often hit a dead end or fork in the road), but according to Vestas, the company is now focusing on scaling up the new process into a commercial solution. We have reached out to Vestas with some questions, and will update this article when we hear back.
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