Researchers say the blade-recycling process could enable a waste-free circular value chain across the wind sector, allowing turbines to be sustainably manufactured at scale
Efforts are underway to commercialise a turbine blade recycling technology that could enable a fully-circular value chain across the global wind sector.
A coalition of industry and academia, spearheaded by Danish turbine manufacturer Vestas, aims to develop a process that can chemically break down thermoset composites – the materials used to make wind turbine blades – into base components that can later be used to manufacture new blades.
With around 85-90% of wind turbine components currently capable of being recycled, turbine blades represent the final hurdle to eliminating waste across the manufacturing process as analysts forecast a massive uptake in wind deployment in the race to decarbonise the world’s energy systems.
“As global commitments to a net-zero future increase, it’s absolutely crucial to ensure the wind industry can scale sustainably,” said Allan Korsgaard Poulsen, head of sustainability and advanced materials at Vestas Innovation and Concepts.
He added that the project will be crucial to delivering on Vestas’ goal to produce zero-waste turbines by 2040, and will enable “a future where landfill is no longer required in blade decommissioning”.
Vestas also recently invested in Swedish start-up Modvion, which specialises in building wood-based wind turbine towers with the aim of lowering the carbon intensity of turbine construction while also addressing end-of-life recycling issues.
Two-step process for wind turbine blade recycling
Low-weight, high-strength properties of thermoset composites are what make them attractive to turbine manufacturers – but also render blades difficult to recycle due to strong chemical bonds between fibre and epoxy materials.
The new recycling technique involves two stages: disassembly of the thermoset composites into fibre and epoxy, followed by a novel “chemcycling” process that further breaks down the epoxy into base components similar to virgin materials that can be used in the manufacture of new turbine blades.
The Circular Economy for Thermosets Epoxy Composites (CETEC) initiative aims to deliver a “fully-scoped solution” for this process ready for industrial adoption within the next three years.
Joining Vestas in the programme is the world’s largest epoxy producer Olin, as well as researchers from the Danish Technological Institute (DTI) and Aarhus University.
Professor Troels Skrydstrup from Aarhus University said: “Chemcycling of epoxy-based materials would allow deconstructing these highly-stable polymer chains into molecular building blocks. These building blocks are easily processable and can be utilised to produce new epoxy, which will have the same quality as the original material.
“Avoiding the loss of valuable molecular complexity in such a way is a highly-desirable concept and an important step to sustainable materials.”
DTI team manager Simon Frølich described the recycling technique as a “gamechanger” for the industry that could help to establish a circular value chain for wind turbines.
Vestas says the technology has “significant potential for commercial value capture” for the wind industry, particularly amid strengthening market regulations around waste management and the ever-increasing focus on sustainable development.
It could also have applications in other industries where thermoset composites are commonly used, including aviation and automotive.
The CETEC initiative is partly-funded by Innovation Fund Denmark (IFD).