The shift toward alternative energy has yielded a domino effect of change and initiatives surrounding sustainable development. Demand and growth have prompted research in battery storage, manufacturing, and other vital steps regarding renewable energies.
Research into proper end-life disposal is rising for turbine blades and solar panels. These large structures contain materials that make recycling difficult, though not impossible. Both areas have seen some success lately, particularly turbine blade recycling.
Some are looking beyond recycling toward opportunities for other unique applications, like utilizing turbine blades to create a sturdy and eco-friendly bridge.
A Second Life
Just across the Atlantic, an Irish network named Re-Wind is making headlines for their ingenious upcycling of turbine blades into a bridge. The Re-Wind network formed a team of individuals who have one goal: finding unique alternatives to dispose of spent turbine blades.
Because the blades are so large, up to 150-feet long, decommissioning and refurbishing them into a bridge is not an easy one. It took the Irish company nine months just to reengineer the blades to be suitable for the design, not including construction, development, and permitting.
The turbines provide structural integrity and act as a railing for pedestrians. The bridge will be installed over old railway tracks in Midleton and Youghal and serve as a reminder that we can achieve sustainability through creative measures.
Ph.D. candidate in the University College Cork civil engineering program, Angela Nagle, says "that by using blades decommissioned from a wind farm in Belfast, the team avoided nearly 800 kilograms of CO2 emissions that would have occurred had they used steel girders." Nagle says Re-Wind "is exploring other ways to streamline the production of future bridges, including through standardized design elements and by developing more efficient ways to evaluate the condition of used blades and "bucket them for various repurposing applications."
Re-Wind has also dabbled in other upcycled turbine designs, like tents, and bike shelters, something already in use in Denmark.
The Re-Wind network is the second organization to delve into turbine bridges. The title of first belongs to Amnet, who constructed a bridge of turbine blades in Szprotawa, Poland last October. Amnet had to bear the brunt of financing the endeavor, though they received help through several European Union grants.
Amnet's bridge construction took about three years from start to finish with help from Poland's Rzeszów University of Technology. The project used retired turbine blades commissioned from Germany. Marcin Sobczyk, a product developer for the Polish company, says they hope to streamline and expand their concept throughout Europe. Eventually, "Amnet will be able to offer a price that's competitive with traditional steel and concrete bridges while also solving a waste problem by taking decommissioned blades off wind energy companies' hands."
Amnet's bridge opened for use this past January. Re-Wind's bridge is expected to open in spring, awaiting the completion of a nearby greenway.
Challenges and Opportunities
Because of the difficulties of recycling turbine blades, alternative routes can prove highly beneficial to the alternative energy movement.
Some claim this is the beginning of a new trend to repurpose blades rather than recycle, preventing their build-up in landfills and gaining sturdy building materials.
Significant factors driving these designs forward include permitting, funding, and public opinion. Sobczyk suggests that most comments on the bridge are optimistic. But some are still hesitant to embrace the concept.
There will always be some level of opposition regarding sustainable development. Change can be difficult, especially in realms we don't fully comprehend.
Regardless, inventions such as these provide examples of the versatility and promise of human ingenuity. Innovations like the turbine blade bridge will undoubtedly inspire others worldwide, creating a ripple effect of positive change toward sustainability.