Vestas Claims An Answer To Recycle All Wind Turbine Blades

Highlights :

  • Vestas has discovered a chemical process that could eliminate the need for landfill and transform used blades into a source of raw material.
  • Recycling of both wind, and solar components is going to assume greater urgency as the volume of capacity added in the early part of this century and earlier starts up build up fast now.

Wind turbines have become a crucial component in the fight against climate change, but what happens to the massive blades at the end of their lifespan? Landfills were the only answer, until now. Vestas Wind Systems is claiming a game-changing chemical process that it says could eliminate the need for landfill disposal and transform used blades into a source of raw material.

The Danish manufacturer designs, manufactures, installs, and services onshore and offshore wind turbines, and has installed over 160 GW of wind capacity in more than 85 countries.

What are the Challenges With Blades?

Wind turbine blades usually consist of fibreglass, balsa wood sheets, and epoxy thermoset resin. These materials are chosen for their resilience to strong winds. Though this is much needed during the turbine’s operation, it often makes the blades difficult to recycle, crush, or reuse once they reach the end of their lifespan.

Not only is the material itself hard to break down, but the large size of the blades, which can reach well over 100 meters in length in the newest turbines, makes them challenging to dispose of. In most cases, only one blade can be transported at a time due to the limited capacity of big rigs.

The problem is further aggravated by the burgeoning demand for energy and the push for renewables. Although wind turbine blades are rated to last for 20-25 years, most are often taken down after just 10 years to be replaced with bigger and more advanced models to repower the sites. That has left thousands of used blades ending up in landfills all over the world. To that extent, a comprehensive recycling success here would go some way to reduce the lifetime emissions linked to wind energy further.

In the most mature markets for wind energy where the earliest WTG’s have been around for well over 35 years even, the first turbines are reaching the end of their operational life. This will only increase over the coming years to match the capacity additions that picked up over the years are retired or repowered. WindEurope expects around 25,000 tonnes of blades to reach the end of their operational life annually by 2025, and has, in 2021, called for a Europe-wide landfill ban on decommissioned wind turbine blades by 2025.

Recycling Blades: Vestas’ Chemical Process Makes it Possible

The Danish firm has introduced a newly discovered chemical process that can convert epoxy resin into virgin-grade materials, which was previously thought to be impossible. If fully developed, this technology could eliminate the need for changes to the blade material design or composition, and aid in creating a circular system.

“Until now, the wind industry has believed that turbine blade material calls for a new approach to design and manufacture to be either recyclable or beyond this, circular, at end of life. Going forward, we can now view old epoxy-based blades as a source of raw material”, said Lisa Ekstrand, Vice President and Head of Sustainability at Vestas.

The newly discovered chemical process shows that epoxy-based turbine blades, whether in operation or sitting in a landfill, can be turned into a source of raw material to potentially build new turbine blades. In addition, as the chemical process relies on widely available chemicals, the process is highly compatible with industrialisation and thus can be scaled up at ease and quickly.

The novel chemical process was developed by Vestas as part of the CETEC (Circular Economy for Thermosets Epoxy Composites) project. Apart from Vestas, the partners involved in this initiative include the Danish Technological Institute (DTI), Aarhus University, and American epoxy producer Olin Corporation.

The wind turbine manufacturer has announced plans to expand the recently found chemical disassembly process into a commercial solution, in collaboration with Olin, an epoxy manufacturer and project partner of Vestas, and Stena Recycling, an expert in recycling.

Earlier Efforts

The Vestas Chemical Process is not the first effort toward solving the menace of turbine blade material. Several players have taken steps with varied solutions. For instance, The Zero wastE Blade ReseArch (ZEBRA) consortium produced the prototype of its 100 per cent recyclable wind turbine blade in March 2022. Siemens Gamesa took a step further by rolling out the first commercially used recyclable blades at RWE’s Kaskasi offshore wind farm in Germany three months later.

Furthermore, the Denmark-based Continuum announced plans to build six industrial-scale recycling factories across Europe, the first of which would become operational by the end of 2024. Furthermore, many OEMs and wind farm operators tried to find solutions for landfilling by integrating existing blade material in the cement production industry.

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