General Electric announced an impressive breakthrough by producing the world's first fully recyclable turbine blade.
Before we discuss the schematics of this accomplishment, we must first understand why it is to be celebrated in the first place.
The rampant desire for climate change remediation throughout the globe has resulted in a slew of changes, from tightened environmental regulations to company pledges and even individual initiatives. Of these changes, there has been a significant focus on transitioning from fossil fuels to alternative, specifically renewable, energy sources.
Renewable energy includes solar, geothermal, wind, hydro, and biomass and is touted to be an appropriate option to provide power at a lower environmental footprint. Of these renewable fuels, wind energy has gained an array of popularity in the US, making the country home to one of the world's largest and fastest-growing wind markets.
The most common type of wind energy design is a horizontal axis wind turbine, which consists of a rotor and three main blades situated on a tall steel tower, resembling a modern windmill. When the wind is strong enough, it will turn the blades, spin the generator, and thus, produce energy. That energy can then be used immediately or stored for future use.
Wind turbines can be installed both on and offshore. However, there has been a more recent push for offshore farms due to their many benefits: more significant energy generation, less land use, lower rates of wildlife disturbance, and no surrounding neighbors, meaning the shadows and aesthetic pollution aren't an issue.
Though incredibly beneficial in the race to combat climate change, as with nearly anything in life, wind turbines aren't perfect. Some of their challenges include shadow pollution, low energy generation during off-peak times, wildlife disruption, and lack of easy recyclability.
Of these obstacles, recyclability has seen an array of attempted changes, typically in the realm of creating a way to properly dispose of current blades. This approach can prove to be highly beneficial when considering that by 2050, there will be 43 million tons of decommissioned turbine blades that need proper disposal.
Nevertheless, recycling these current blades poses difficulties due to the fiberglass encompassing a great deal of the design. This material is used due to being lightweight and durable, though, on the downside, it hardly degrades over time.
On the flip side is GE, which has previous experience with wind turbines and has gone a similar yet different route by looking to create newer blades that can be recycled easier.
The blade, named the Zero wastE Blade ReseArch (ZEBRA), was constructed in Spain by one of GE's subsidiaries, LM Wind Power. The prototype currently stands at just over 200ft tall and was constructed utilizing "Arkema's Elium thermoplastic resin and glass fabrics from Owens Corning." These "can be chemically recycled, where the resin is "depolymerized" – a process that separates the fiber from the resin and recovers the materials to be reused."
As a part of this project, the ZEBRA team was the product of a group effort between the aforementioned LW Wind Power and Arkema, Canoe, Engie, Owens Corning, and Suez.
According to one source, the group's "goal has been to demonstrate the technical, economic, and environmental relevance of thermoplastic wind turbine blades on a full scale, with an eco-design approach to facilitate recycling."
The following stages for the turbine blade include real-life testing at a facility in Denmark to ensure its durability, reliability, and efficiency. After the success of these, it will then go through the process of legal validation before the companies begin mass construction.
A couple of representatives of the companies spoke out on the occasions, saying the following about the achievement:
"The manufacture of this first blade is a great success for the entire consortium and for the wind industry in general."
"On one hand, we are progressing on our Zero Waste Blades vision by preventing and recycling manufacturing waste.”
"On the other, we are taking blade recyclability to a new level: the end-of-life thermoplastic composite blade material has a high value in itself and can be readily utilised in other industries as material compounds but can also be depolymerised and the resin reused in the production of new blades."
Lowering wind energy's end-of-life footprint can best be done via two routes; finding ways to recycle current blade technology and creating improved blade technology for future installments to make the whole process easier.
With all the companies looking for ways to recycle current models, GE taking the latter route and beginning the shift toward fully recyclable blades can help create a domino effect of continued progress and improvement throughout the industry. Further, these efforts represent the notion that there is always room for growth and improvement, and in the race to combat climate change, this growth can make all the difference.