Team Developing Recycled Turbine Resin


For the past three years, researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have reportedly been developing an easily recycled resin for the central glue that holds a wind turbine blade together.

Now, according to a release from the laboratory, the team has successfully used the new PolyEster Covalently Adaptable Network (PECAN) resin to construct a 9-meter prototype turbine blade.  

Beginning by formulating the resin in thimble-sized vials at the lab bench, the team, led by researchers Robynne Murray and Nicholas Rorrer, reportedly conducted several rounds of experimenting, fine tuning and slowly scaling up.

About the Research

Over 70,000 wind turbines are reportedly in operation in the United States, a number that is expected to grow as the nation moves toward a clean energy future. According to the release, it is estimated that over 2 million tons of wind turbine blade materials will be in use in the U.S. by 2050.

Typically, to make most resins used in wind turbine blades, nonrenewable resources like petroleum need to be used along with a large amount of energy. It is reportedly also hard to recycle in a cost-effective way without significantly degrading the material.

The release states that the PECAN resin was designed using biobased chemicals that can be easily extracted from plant waste and can be used to help decarbonize the energy sector and get rid of waste.

The team believes that this new development will mark a large milestone in the material’s path to readiness for mainstream manufacturing. PECAN resin can reportedly be constructed entirely from biobased materials, such as sorbitol, a common sugar found in plant waste. 

Additionally, the team stated that the PECAN resin can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40%. It also needs 30% less energy to make than the epoxy primarily used in current U.S. wind turbine blades.

“This is huge,” Murray stated. “It creates the potential to save significant energy and money while also decarbonizing the first life of each turbine.”

To ensure that this would not make the turbine blade flimsy, the team reportedly constructed the resin to have a similar structural performance to current wind turbine blade materials. As an example, the release states that the new material outperformed other resins in the “creep” department, a term which indicates how well a blade holds its stiffness over time.

“If a wind blade hangs out in the air under its own weight for long enough, you may see it start to lose its stiffness. And that could be a really big problem with other resin systems,” Murray stated.

"And thanks to its unique chemistry, we’ve been able to show the PECAN material performs really well on creep tests.”

According to the release, recycling wind turbine components is an important part of creating a sustainable wind energy industry. The PECAN resin can reportedly aid with this issue, as manufacturers can depolymerize it with little energy or equipment and no harsh chemicals.

“This means blades made with the PECAN resin have the potential to be recycled at the wind farm decommission site, which can minimize blade transportation emissions and further decarbonize the life cycle of each turbine," Murray said.

The NREL team states that it designed the resin with a network of special chemical bonds called "ester linkages," which can be broken down with safe and affordable chemicals and help with recycling the material.

Murray noted that the research behind PECAN resin was made possible because of NREL’s research resources and facilities, like the Composites Manufacturing Education and Technology Facility.

As for the next steps, the team reportedly plans to build an even bigger blade with the PECAN resin, allowing them to perform additional structural experiments before the resin is market ready.

The team believes the new resin can be an easy drop-in replacement for current wind turbine materials.

Other Turbine Recycling

In January, A new business in Iowa reported that it has created an eco-friendly process to convert decommissioned wind turbine blades into reusable materials for concrete, mortar and other industries.

REGEN Fiber, owned by transportation solutions company Travero, was reportedly the world’s first and only company to “free the fiber” from waste materials generated at both ends of the wind turbine blade lifecycle without using a thermal or chemical process.

REGEN Fiber reported that by preventing decommissioned wind turbine blades from ending up in landfills or releasing combustion byproducts such as carbon to the atmosphere if burned, the solution was helping to solve the wind industry’s growing challenge of finding environmentally friendly ways for disposing of wind turbine components.

REGEN Fiber used the patent-pending method to produce reinforcement fibers to increase the strength and durability of concrete and mortar applications, as well as produce microfibers and additives from components of the wind blade for use in a range of composite, concrete and soil stabilization applications.

Large, commercial-scale operations for recycling decommissioned blades were anticipated to begin in the second half of 2023 at a new manufacturing facility that was being constructed in Fairfax, Iowa. Once operations reach full production levels, REGEN Fiber explained that it expected to recycle over 30,000 tons of shredded blade materials per year.

Also, in June, engineering researchers at the University of Edinburgh reportedly received a 125,000-euro ($159,123.12) grant for the development of a new wind turbine recycling process that could turn decommissioned turbine blade parts into protective coatings.

The grant was reportedly made by the investment trust Greencoat UK Wind, a specialist in renewable energy, and was meant to help Professor Vasileios Koutsos and Dr. Dipa Roy at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Engineering continue to develop their method of transforming decommissioned blade materials into powders for coatings to protect engineering and structural components from corrosion and erosion by the elements.

The coating would reportedly protect wind turbine blades from raindrops and other particulates while also potentially preventing corrosion in the “built environment” on things such as cables and suspension bridges.

Usually huge structures, these turbines are reportedly made from complex composite materials that have been bonded together with epoxy and reinforced fibers. This had previously made the task of separating and recycling more difficult and expensive.

The research project—titled "Added-Value CoatTings (ACT)"—would reportedly run for 12 months and was backed by the University of Edinburgh’s commercialization service, Edinburgh Innovations, who helped secure the funding.


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