What is going on
Scientists propose making wind turbine blades from a new material that can be recycled into many common items.
Why it matters
It is difficult and expensive to recycle standard fiberglass wind turbine blades, so waste equipment usually ends up in a landfill.
Even wind power—perhaps the most established way of generating environmentally friendly energy—has an Achilles heel.
Towering towers that draw energy from the wind are topped with huge turbine blades, and these blades need to be replaced every so often. For example, a significant amount of old equipment has to be disposed of, and in recent years experts have debated whether such disposal meets environmentally friendly criteria.
The concern is simply whether wind turbine blades are recyclable. If not, dumping discarded blades into landfills negates the system’s presumed durability in the first place. But it’s a tricky situation. These blades are usually made of fiberglass, a material that is very difficult to cut, transport, and reuse for other things.
While some experts have had success recycling the energy-saving tool, such as US startup Global Fiberglass Solutions, which used them to create 3D printing raw materials, statistics show that the artifacts are usually simply added to piles of waste that release harmful gases into into the atmosphere and encroach on the natural habitats of wildlife. Why? It’s cheaper in the end.
However, scientists at Michigan State University on Monday offered their blueprints of an innovative way to tackle this problem. They developed a new form of wind turbine material that combines glass fibers with both vegetable and synthetic polymers, which refer to long chains of molecules. The mixture is called a composite resin and the hype lies in the fact that it is much easier to recycle than pure fiberglass.
Oh, and here’s the best part: it can also be turned into delicious gummy bears.
“The beauty of our resin system is that we can dissolve it at the end of its use cycle, freeing it from the matrix it resides in so that it can be used over and over in an infinite loop,” John Dorgan, a chemical engineer engineer from MSU, who will present the team’s work at the fall meeting of the American Chemical Society, said in a press release. “That is the goal of the circular economy.”
Turbines turn into treats
Basically, the team’s new resin can be separated into its component parts when its job as a wind turbine structure is completed. Crucially, this means the hard-to-handle fiberglass bits can be removed. Then the resulting junk can be transformed into new wind turbines, as well as a large variety from other materials. And I mean wide.
It just depends on which of the ingredients of the mixture you decide to take out and manipulate.
For example, when the researchers digested the resin in an alkaline solution, they obtained an acrylic substance that can be used in making windows and car taillights. Raising the temperature during digestion produces a superabsorbent polymer instead, often used in diaper making.
This resin can also reincarnate as household countertops when fused with various minerals. “We recently made a bathroom sink with the cultured stone, so we know it works,” Dorgan said. And the dissolved material can also be combined with plastics, creating more luxurious items such as laptop covers and power tools.
“We extracted food-grade potassium lactate and used it to make gummy bear candies, which I ate,” Dorgan said. Not a Haribo fan? This chemical can also be used to make sports drinks, similar to Gatorade.
And if you have the idea of eating a gummy version or a fruity drink concoction made from an old wind turbine, Dorgan emphasizes that “a carbon atom derived from a plant, such as corn or grass, is no different from a carbon atom derived from a plant, such as corn or grass.” comes from a fossil fuel… it’s all part of the global carbon cycle, and we’ve shown that we can go from biomass in the field to sustainable plastic materials and back to foods.”
However, it’s also important to note that the team has only produced a prototype of its invention so far. And getting from prototype to finished product, Dorgan explained, there’s a bit of a limitation: “There’s not enough of the bioplastic we use to satisfy this market, so there’s a significant volume of production to be brought online if we’re going to actually making wind turbines from these materials.”
But if that hurdle is overcome, we could enter an era where our Macbook cases, iPhone charging cables, sturdy kitchenware and even gelatinous snacks are laced with the remains of a veteran knife that once lived among the clouds.