Spinning their way through the horizon lines of 41 states, an estimated 53,000 wind turbines are producing electricity across America. However, just like any other product, turbine blades wear out or are replaced by newer, better models.
What’s left are 122’ long pieces of fiberglass that need to be discarded or, better yet, recycled. However, as is the case when cutting any material, the process creates a fiberglass dust that is extremely harmful when inhaled by humans or animals. There’s also not much that can be done with fiberglass dust, so grinding it up for disposal is a lose-lose situation. Additionally, the size of the blades and composition of the material makes landfills equally undesirable.
Enter Global Fiberglass Solutions, Inc. which recently began working with GE in helping them repurpose their decommissioned wind turbine blades. GFSI cuts the blades into smaller pieces with wet wire blades to minimize the amount of dust. The blades are then shredded and added to a proprietary formula in making products like manhole covers and pallets.
According to a recent GE Report, these new products exceed wood-based composites in water resistance, mechanical properties, resistance to bio-deterioration and fire resistance. GFSI then works with the original owners of the blades, like GE, in selling them the newly created product. So far GFSI has recycled more than 560 GE blades.
GFSI is no stranger to the chemical processes needed to break down these materials. They recently launched a partnership with Washington State University focused on recycling the carbon fiber plastics used in airplanes and high-end sporting goods. Similar to the fiberglass used in the turbine blades, these types of materials are cured and can’t be broken down like traditional thermoplastics used for common applications like milk containers.
A team led by Jinwen Zhang, a professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, developed a chemical recycling method using zinc chloride and liquid ethanol. Combining these chemicals and raising the material temperatures allowed the liquid to penetrate the composite and break it down. The ethanol expanded the resins, while the zinc chloride broke down the carbon bonds.
This allowed for preserving the benefits of the carbon fiber composition while changing it to more of a resin that can be re-used. The team has filed for a patent and is working to commercialize their work in support of Washington’s aerospace industry.