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The Second Life of Wind Turbine Blades

As the world pushes towards renewable energy, the wind energy industry comes to the forefront as a clean and a genuinely green energy. And like any other industry, the wind industry too is technologically evolving producing bigger and better upgrades, which means that old wind farms are being regularly decommissioned and refitted with upgraded equipment. Herein, comes the question of recycling, and the wind industry has a reputation to hold. Unfortunately, one of the largest component of a wind turbine —the blades— are completely unrecyclable.

Turbine blades are made from glass or carbon-fiber composites. These materials are strong, lightweight and has a significant aerodynamic advantage, but they are nearly impossible to recycle. Hence, at the end of their lifecycle, most of these blades end up as waste on landfills. According to one estimate, there will be 50,000 tons of blade waste in 2020, which will rise to more than 200,000 tons by 2034.


A playground in Rotterdam built out of decommissioned wind turbine blades. Photo credit: Denis Guzzo/Flickr

The current scenario is grim. There is only one industrial enterprise that recycles end-of-life turbine blades, and that’s in Melbeck, in northern Germany. The company shreds the blades and after mixing it with other waste material produces a compound that a certain cement producer uses as a substitute fuel. The company processes about 400-500 tons of waste turbine blades each month.

As far as innovative attempts to reduce waste is concerned, the Netherlands is leading the change.

In 2007, the Rotterdam municipality unveiled a playground for Kinderparadijs Meidoorn built out of rotor blades that were originally destined for landfills. Several rotor blades were cut up into parts to serve as tunnels, towers, bridges, hills, ramps and slides. The recycled blades were secured into the ground and painted white with brightly colored stripes.

The city also has public seating at the Willemsplein square where nine intact rotor blades were placed at various angles to create ergonomic public seating with a diversity of seating options. Similarly, in 2014, a durable bus shelter was created in the city of Almere, again from end-of-life turbine blades.

According to the GenVind Innovation Consortium, if only 5 percent of the Netherlands’ yearly production of urban furniture such as playgrounds, public seating and bus shelters were made using waste rotor blades, then the country could get rid of all of its estimated 400 waste rotor blades produced annually.

REwind Willemsplein


Photo credit: Denis Guzzo/Flickr


Photo credit: Denis Guzzo/Flickr


Photo credit: Denis Guzzo/Flickr


Photo credit: Denis Guzzo/Flickr


Photo credit: Denis Guzzo/Flickr

Wikado Playground


Photo credit: Denis Guzzo/Flickr


Photo credit: Denis Guzzo/Flickr


Photo credit: Denis Guzzo/Flickr


Photo credit: Denis Guzzo/Flickr

The Future

A team of scientists at Aarhus University in Denmark is trying to develop a chemical substance that will make it possible to separate composite materials from each other — the main problem that has been thwarting recycling attempts. The goal of the team is to create a chemical solvent that can separate the glass from the plastic fibers so they each can be recycled individually.

Another team of researchers at the Washington State University have discovered that turbine blades when cut into small pieces could be processed into new composite materials that hold up well compared to many wood composites. These materials could have a variety of applications, from floor tiles to plastic road barriers.

Sources: GenVind Innovation Consortium / No Tech Magazine / Wind Power Engineering / Wind Power Monthly

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