Wind infrastructure composites: Recycling may be in the air

Of all the many infrastructure sectors, power generation has seen one of the largest trends in composite materials usage for many of its applications. For instance, composites are now being used in buried and above-ground conduit, wind power and water-based power generation systems. Wind power infrastructure in particular has benefited from composites, and it may be poised to also benefit from the recycling of composites as well.

Three benefits wind infrastructure composite recycling may offer

Wind power began growing in popularity across the world about 15 years ago. Since then, composite wind turbines have matured into a tool that generates a significant amount of the world’s electricity every year. According to the World Wind Energy Association, more than 539 gigawatts (GW) of electricity was produced by wind turbines in 2018, with 52.5 GW being added in 2017. To put these numbers in perspective, one gigawatt of electricity is enough to power between 350,000 and 700,000 houses depending on the efficiency of the power generating system. Conservatively then, this means that 539 gigawatts could power more than 188 million homes every year.

All of these statistics are staggering. However, one issue that the wind industry will soon have to face is that many of their composite wind turbine blades will be ending their useful life. Composite wind turbine blades are generally considered to have a useful life of between 20 and 25 years. For blades installed when wind power first began to boom in the early 2000s, this means that the end of their useful life is only about 5 or 10 years away, and then these blades will have to be replaced. The replacement of so many turbine blades in the near future has some researchers and power providers asking, “What’s going to happen to all those old turbine blades?”

One answer to this question may be composite turbine blade recycling. This process is under development in various places. For instance, fiberglass recycling company Global Fiberglass Solutions has begun to develop procedures to recycle fiberglass composite turbine blades. Similar work is also being done by a joint U.S.-Northern Ireland-Republic of Ireland research team in a project called RE-WIND. With programs like these, composite turbine blades could continue to provide benefits long after their initial service life is over, including:

  • Not adding non-biodegradable waste to landfills
  • Creating composite materials for other building applications
  • Driving increased composite sustainability

All of these and the other benefits of composite wind turbine blade recycling processes could, in turn, filter into other industries that use composites heavily. This could include the aerospace and automotive industries. If this turns out to be the case, the recycling of composite wind turbines could help the global power infrastructure and the composites industry in general create a truly sustainable product.

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