Renewable energy has been hailed as the great salve for the world’s climate change woes. Building massive infrastructure for solar and wind energy, and introducing electric vehicles, will help citizens in developing countries live the lifestyles they desire without the need to burn dirty fossil fuels. But though these technologies have existed for decades, there’s no plan to make sure they remain green to the end. Experts forecast hundreds of thousands of tons of old wind turbine blades, batteries, and solar modules will need to be disposed of or recycled in the next decade—and millions of tons by 2050. Read on about the technologies evolving around the world to handle this unusual waste stream. Would Renewable Energy Hardware recycling be as vital as the afore mentioned great salve itself?
Or put differently:
Can we close the loop on old batteries, wind turbines, and solar panels to keep valuable materials out of the trash?
A question that is answered by Melody M. Bomgardner , Alex Scott in this article published on April 9, 2018 in VOLUME 96, ISSUE 15 and excerpted here below for a wider spread especially amongst the MENA region readers.
You don’t have to be a futurist to imagine a green energy landscape populated by rows of rotating wind turbines, fields of sparkling solar panels, and smooth-running, silent electric cars. Indeed, that utopian vision is almost within reach.
But if the materials that enable those technologies aren’t reclaimed, the future’s clean energy will be anything but, with views marred by graveyards of old turbine blades, decrepit solar panels, and corroding batteries. Many initiatives are under way to prepare for the arrival of this new type of waste. But in most cases, the solutions are works in progress at best.
The potential quantities of waste are enormous. By 2025, waste batteries removed from electric vehicles will total 95 gigawatt hours worth, according to an estimate by Bloomberg New Energy Finance. That pile will weigh roughly 600,000 metric tons.
A similar amount of old solar panels will have accumulated by then, according to projections by the International Renewable Energy Agency. IRENA anticipates solar panel waste could reach 78 million metric tons by 2050. And Europe could see 300,000 metric tons per year of decommissioned wind turbine blades in the next two decades, says the trade association WindEurope.
Thanks to rising demand for renewable energy, manufacturers already face spiking costs and supply constraints for raw materials such as cobalt and lithium. What’s more, it takes a lot of human ingenuity and effort to make turbine blade composites, high-purity photovoltaic silicon, and highly structured battery cathodes. Those cleverly engineered materials deserve more than a one-way ticket to trash town.
However, recovering materials from discarded devices remains impractical. They are manufactured to not come apart, even under extreme force or environmental conditions, so they can do their job for as long as possible. And they are made by mixing valuable materials with less valuable ones. Getting the good stuff back out is like unscrambling an egg.
Materials scientists, manufacturers, and waste handlers are working on ways to efficiently reclaim renewable energy materials. But so far, not enough of these devices have reached the end of life to make investing in recycling facilities worthwhile. It’s not clear whether a profitable industry will be born in time to prevent clean energy from adding to the planet’s already growing pile of waste.
Wind turbine blades are giant. A single blade for a modern onshore turbine is as long as 60 meters, according to the manufacturer LM Wind Power, and blades are getting longer. Indeed, companies brag about the size of their blades because a bigger sweep generally means more power per tower.
While other wind turbine components, including the tower, gearbox, and generator, are readily recyclable, blades present a challenge. They are typically made from a composite of glass fiber and epoxy or another thermoset resin. The cross-linked polymers cannot be melted down and recycled, in contrast to thermoplastics such as polypropylene.
The picture above to the Credit of: National Wind Technology Center and is of a Wind turbine blades, commonly 60 meters long or larger, are difficult to move and to recycle.
And the blades are heavy; a study of turbine blade waste by researchers at the University of Cambridge Institute for Manufacturing estimates that an LM Wind Power blade weighs 15 metric tons. Some manufacturers are making lighter blades by mixing in carbon fiber. In the future, fancier fibers such as carbon nanotubes and high-performance synthetics might lend lightweight strength.
In the U.S. and Europe, wind operators put up the first industrial-sized turbines in the late 1990s. The machines are designed to last 25 years or longer, but some of the blades are being taken down to be replaced by more efficient versions or because they wore out or were struck by lightning.
Even blades from the early generation of wind farms weigh up to 8 metric tons apiece. “This is a big honking blade—you could just throw it in the landfill, but some places won’t accept them,” says Karl Englund, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Washington State University.
Credit: Arkema Group
Arkema’s recipe for a recyclable wind turbine blade. See how the company made a giant blade from thermoplastic composites.
Englund stresses that a decommissioned turbine blade is a costly nuisance. For wind project operators, transporting even one blade is a logistical nightmare. “There is no use for them. In Sweetwater, Texas, there is a sign on an old blade that says, ‘Welcome to Sweetwater, Texas!’ So that took care of one blade,” Englund jokes.
For the past three years, Englund has been perfecting a blade recycling scheme with the composite firm Global Fiberglass Solutions. The partners have plans to build a recycling center in Sweetwater, which calls itself the wind energy capital of the world.
Recycling starts with trained workers who cut up the blades at a wind farm and stack the pieces on a truck for transport to a centralized facility, Englund explains. There, the pieces are mechanically broken into increasingly smaller bits with a variety of machines until they reach a size that contains fibers of a desired length for the material’s next life.
The material can then be combined with adhesives and pressed into high-performance composite panels similar to wood-based particleboard or oriented strand board. The glass fibers give the panels fire and moisture resistance, Englund says, making them ideal for commercial and industrial buildings. “We have quite a few people who want this panel after seeing it.”
Others have attempted to process old blades and reclaim glass or carbon fibers. In 2002, Danish wind technology engineer Erik Grove-Nielsen founded a recycling firm called ReFiber. He developed a pyrolysis technology for turning glass fiber in old polyester or epoxy wind turbine blades into a fibrous material suitable for use as building insulation. The anaerobic process involved heating turbine pieces to 500 °C in a 6-meter-long rotating gas oven.
ReFiber had planned to raise capital and build a 5,000-metric-ton-per-year facility. But without a consistent supply of old blades, the firm ceased operations in 2007, says Grove-Nielsen, who now works as a consultant for the wind farm builder Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy.
But processes that use pyrolysis or other high-heat methods generally yield weaker fibers that can’t be reused in high-value composites. “You can end up just making really expensive garbage,” Englund contends.
The French specialty chemical firm Arkema says thermoplastic resins are the way to go to make blades recyclable. To prove it can be done, the company made a single blade last year using a composite of glass fiber and methacrylate resin. Unlike epoxy, the resin can be melted and recycled. It’s not clear whether blade manufacturers will make the switch.
In Europe, wind turbines may find a second life in countries just starting to adopt wind energy, thereby delaying the end-of-life problem. “A good example is the very first Danish Bonus—now Siemens—turbine, taken down after 33 years of successful operation,” Grove-Nielsen says. “The same turbine is now operating in southern Italy near Bari.”
Other uses for old turbine blades take advantage of creative thinking. Independent wind turbine engineer Behzad Rahnama wrote a graduate school thesis on repurposing offshore wind turbines into artificial reefs. Although the idea hasn’t been tested, it has drawn a lot of interest, Rahnama says. He points out that any materials used in the blades would have to be nontoxic to marine life.
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