University of Tennessee developing technology to recycle wind turbine blades

Published on September 15, 2020 by Dave Kovaleski

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The University of Tennessee is developing a technology that would enable the recycling of wind turbine blades into new recycled composites.

This new technology recovers the glass fiber from reinforced polymer composites while limiting mechanical degradation of the fiber during the reclamation process. This allows the recycled fiber to be reused for other uses, like renewable energy systems components and performance sports equipment.

The project was made possible by a $1.1 million grant from the Department of Energy’s Small Business Technology Transfer program and Wind Energy Technologies Office,

“It’s not a mystery why wind energy is now America’s largest domestic source of renewable energy,” said Ryan Ginder, research assistant professor in the Tickle College of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering, and lead researcher on the project. “Wind power is clean, economical, and readily available right here in the USA, but it still has a problem; to make those giant iconic blades, wind turbine manufacturers rely on advanced polymer composites. These materials can survive some of mother nature’s most brutal forces, but eventually, do wear out and end up in the landfill. As the wind industry grows and waste blade levels climb into the tens, hundreds of thousands of tons and beyond, a better end of life solution is needed rather than simply piling them at the dump.”

The university has partnered with Carbon Rivers, a start-up company located in Knoxville, to further develop and commercialize the novel glass fiber recovery technology for handling retired wind turbine blades.

“Having the opportunity to collaborate with the bright minds at UT, like Dr. Ginder, and catalyze new solutions for our country’s plastics waste problem, is a Volunteer’s dream come true,” Bowie Benson, owner of Carbon Rivers and a UT alumnus, said. “The year 2020 has been a challenging year all around for our community, but I remain hopeful for the future as long as we keep working together to take on the tough challenges, like making American energy more sustainable. I am especially optimistic for our project’s next phase, and its potential to improve the wind industry’s environmental footprint while creating new, much-needed jobs in East Tennessee.”

Over the next two years, the UT-Carbon Rivers team will collaborate with GE Renewable Energy, Berkshire Hathaway Energy’s MidAmerican Energy Company, and PacifiCorp utilities to develop a pilot scale glass fiber composite recycling system.

“Rather than simply downcycling the blades into worthless aggregates, we are able to not only convert the blades’ organic components into useful petrochemicals for energy production but also able to extract the glass fiber reinforcement and use it to make higher value recycled composites,” Ginder said.