University Receives Funding to Recycle Wind Turbine Blades

University of Tennessee secures $1.1 million in funding to develop wind turbine blade recycling technology

Thanks to $1.1 million in funding from the Department of Energy’s Small Business Technology Transfer program and Wind Energy Technologies Office, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is developing new technology for the large-scale recycling of wind turbine blades into new recycled composites.

This technology recovers the glass fibre from reinforced polymer composites while limiting the mechanical degradation of the fibre during the reclamation process. In turn, this allows the recycled fibre to be reused in new composite applications such as vehicle light-weighting, other renewable energy systems components, and performance sports equipment.

Wind power is clean, economical, and readily available in the USA, but to make those giant 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.

While the US wind industry has made substantial contributions to America’s renewable energy portfolio, work continues to convert the industry to a more circular economy paradigm. Rather than simply downcycling the blades into aggregates, Researchers at the university are able to not only convert the blades’ organic components into useful petrochemicals for energy production but also able to extract the glass fibre reinforcement and use it to make higher-value recycled composites.

UT has partnered with Carbon Rivers LLC, a start-up company located in Knoxville and owned by alumnus Bowie Benson (’17), to further develop and commercialise the novel glass fibre recovery technology for the purpose of handling retired wind turbine blades.

“Having the opportunity to collaborate with the bright minds at UT, like Dr Ginder, and catalyse new solutions for our country’s plastics waste problem, is a Volunteer’s dream come true,” said Benson. “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 that will serve as the basis for eventual deployment of a full-scale commercial wind blade waste processing plant.