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Researchers to Turn Turbine Blades into Bridges

Friday, January 15, 2021

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In southern Ireland, civil engineers from the Cork Institute of Technology are planning to recycle wind turbines blades for a future pedestrian bridge.

The bridge is slated to be installed on a bicycle route connecting the towns of Youghal and Middletown.

Reusing Turbine Blades

Angela Nagle, a civil engineering Ph.D. student at the University College Cork, and colleagues at the Re-Wind project are currently investigating how wind turbine blades could be repurposed for electrical transmission towers, bridges and more.

“What I’d love to do is turn it into a blade waste brokerage business,” Nagle said.

The Re-Wind project—a collaboration among researchers in the United States, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland that includes funding from all three governments—dates back to 2016 when Re-Wind team lead Larry Bank, a research faculty member at the Georgia Institute of Technology, began investigating the feasibility of repurposing blades for a variety of civil engineering projects.

Kieran Ruane, Cork Institute of Technology

In southern Ireland, civil engineers from the Cork Institute of Technology are planning to recycle wind turbines blades for a future pedestrian bridge.

To put the investigations into practice, Kieran Ruane, lecturer and Chartered Civil and Structural Engineer at CIT, is leading a team of researchers and engineers to design and construct a pedestrian bridge built with decommissioned wind blades. The blades for this project in particular, have been donated by Everun in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Ruane is supported by Re-Wind team members at University College Cork, Georgia Tech and Queens University Belfast.

To kick off the project, last month three 40-foot-long wind turbine blades were delivered by truck to CIT. At the institute, the blades are scheduled to undergo a series of tests which are expected to last a few months. Through design and build efforts, the team hopes to find a way to use the wind blades as a replacement of traditional steel girders found in bridges.

The pedestrian bridge is expected to reach completion by April, where it will then be installed on a nearby bicycle route.

According to reports, more than 11,000 tons of wind blades are scheduled to be decommissioned across Ireland by 2025, giving the Re-Wind team plenty of material to work with should the experiment prove successful. Oftentimes, however, blades can also be taken out of service sooner than their projected 20-year lifespan as companies replace them with bigger ones that can produce more energy. That process is referred to as “repowering.”

The Electric Power Research Institute adds that blade sizes have “increased dramatically” in recent years, from an average diameter of 145 feet in 1997 to 367 feet in 2017. The newer blades are also crafted with tougher, fiber-reinforced plastics.

The pedestrian bridge isn’t the only demonstration the Re-Wind project plans to have debut within the next six months. In addition to the bridge, a team headed by Bank plans to collaborate with an electric power company to repurpose wind blades as large, high-voltage electrical transmission towers, or “Blade Poles.”

For this project, Bank’s team plans to install three decommissioned blades on a wind farm in Kansas next summer. However, the blades won’t be connected to the electric grid during this initial trial so that Re-Wind engineers can study the recycled-blades structures’ durability.

“We’ve got all the theory and calculations, but of course, as engineers, we also want to make sure that this works before putting live wires on it,” Bank said.

But that’s not all, while the teams are only expected to demonstrate two of their theories this year (thus far), the Re-Wind project reports that it has numerous other ideas it would like to try out, including laying blades horizontally along stretches of coastlines to act as wake brakes and help prevent erosion, using them to build better noise barriers for highways, and separating the curved surfaces to use in skate parks, archways or art installations.

The decommissioned blades also have potential to be installed underwater to serve as artificial reef scaffolds or even used in constructing affordable housing.

“One of the first things we looked at was cutting up these blades into pieces that could be given for free or for very low cost to individuals in economically deprived neighborhoods that could be using them for construction,” said Banks.

Should the innovations prove technically sound and economically viable, Bank thinks they could help stave off the looming wind turbine blade waste crisis—or “black eye” as he calls it for the wind industry.

“If you are talking about a sustainable, renewable fuel source, it’s not appropriate to then pollute the environment with materials that are decommissioned.”

Reducing Blade Waste

Other companies are also working to diminish the waste crisis, most recently, General Electric announced its agreement with transnational company Veolia to recycle its onshore wind turbine blades in the United States. The contract is reportedly the first of its kind in the U.S. wind turbine industry.

To recycle the wind turbines, Veolia plans to turn the blades into a raw material for use in cement manufacturing, which can be rapidly deployed at scale, not only increased the environmental benefits of the wind industry.

According to GE, the reprocessed blade has a net-positive environmental impact by replacing coal or other raw materials in the cement production process. An environmental impact analysis by Quantis U.S. reports that the recycling project will aid in a 27% reduction in CO2 emissions and a 13% reduction in water consumption.

In turning the blades into a raw material, Veolia reports that it will use a cement kiln coprocessing technology where retired blades—mainly composed of fiberglass—will be shredded at a Veolia plant near St. Louis, Missouri. The resulting materials can then be used to replace coal, sand and clay otherwise used in the manufacturing of cement.

Through this coprocessing solution, more than 90% of the blade will be reused: 65% as raw material in the cement plants, and 28% transformed into energy required for the chemical reaction in the kiln.

A single wind turbine blade weighing seven tons recycled through Veolia’s process enables the cement kiln to avoid consuming nearly five tons of coal, 2.7 tons of silica, 1.9 tons of limestone, and nearly a ton of additional mineral-based raw materials. The resulting cement has the same properties and performance as cement manufactured using traditional means, meeting all applicable ASTM standards.

However, while the practice is more environmentally friendly than placing the retired blades in landfills, Nagle and Bank both stress that repurposing the blades is an even better option when possible.

“Co-processing is the best thing that can be done with blade waste right now that’s viable,” Nagle said. But it is “definitely better to build bridges out of the blades.”

The month before GE and Veolia’s announcement, researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), in partnership with Arkema Inc of Pennsylvania, were reported to have developed a recyclable material for wind blades.

NREL is home to the Composites Manufacturing Education and Technology (CoMET) Facility at the Flatirons Campus near Boulder, Colorado. There, researchers design, manufacture, and test composite turbine blades.

The materials currently used to construct these blades are difficult to recycle because they incorporate a “thermoset resin,” an ultra-sturdy plastic which is cured at high heat in a chemical process that can’t be reversed.

At NREL, researchers have demonstrated the feasibility of thermoplastic resin and validated its structural integrity on a thermoplastic composite blade manufactured at the lab. In addition to making the blades more recyclable, the swap for thermoplastic also makes the wind blades longer, lighter-weight, and lower-cost blades.

“With thermoset resin systems, it’s almost like when you fry an egg. You can’t reverse that,” said Derek Berry, a senior engineer at NREL. “But with a thermoplastic resin system, you can make a blade out of it. You heat it to a certain temperature, and it melts back down. You can get the liquid resin back and reuse that.”

The new process does not require as much labor, which currently accounts for about 40% of the cost of a blade. Using a technoeconomic the researchers determined that the new process could make blades about 5% less expensive to make.

A paper on the material study, “Structural Comparison of a Thermoplastic Composite Wind Turbine Blade and a Thermoset Composite Wind Turbine Blade,” has since been published in the journal Renewable Energy.

“Today, recyclability is something that is near the top of the list of concerns” said Berry. “All of these companies are saying, ‘We need to change what we’re doing, number one because it’s the right thing to do, number two because regulations might be coming down the road. Number three, because we’re a green industry and we want to remain a green industry.’”


Tagged categories: Bridges; Building materials; Colleges and Universities; Engineers; Environmental Controls; EU; Europe; Infrastructure; NA; North America; Program/Project Management; Recycled building materials; Research and development; Wind Farm; Wind Towers

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (1/15/2021, 9:14 AM)

Great article! I expect a lot of old turbine blades to become available in Texas soon as well.

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