As the global climate emergency continues to loom over human civilization, feverish work is underway around the world to find technical and political solutions to the problem. Much has been gained in recent years, but as global emissions continue to increase, there remains much left to do to stave off the most catastrophic effects of climate change.
Renewable energy has led the charge, allowing humanity to continue to enjoy the wonders of electricity with a reduced environmental impact. The future looks promising, with renewable sources becoming cheaper than traditional fossil fuel energy plants in many cases, both in the US and abroad. At the same time, the rise of renewable technologies has brought new and varied challenges to the fore, which must be dealt with in kind. Take wind energy, for instance.
Turbines Don’t Last For Ever Wind turbine blades are huge, and usually made of composite materials like fiberglass and carbon fiber.
Wind turbines have become a major player in the energy market. Capable of turning the weather itself into energy , and with a far smaller environmental impact than fossil fuel plants, they’ve won a lot of fans. Unfortunately, like blocks of chocolate, tech companies, or a Las Vegas marriage, wind turbines don’t last forever. Much of a modern wind turbine is made out of steel, which is highly recyclable. Infrastructure already exists, and this doesn’t pose a major problem. Turbine blades are a different story, however.
Wind turbine blades are typically made of fiberglass or carbon fiber materials. Constructed as a composite of fiber material combined with resin, they’ve thus far proven to be a difficult item to recycle. Add on the sheer size and bulk of the average turbine blade, and the problem gets even more complicated. Blades can be up to 300 feet long, and are difficult to transport. Compounding the problem, as wind farms are installed in stages, large numbers of blades can reach their end-of-life at the same time, threatening to flood waste processing facilities that don’t have the storage or facilities to deal with them.
The size of most turbine blades means that the first step to recycling them is chopping them up. This takes huge equipment dedicated to the task.
Finding a solution takes time. Pilot programs have begun to spring up around the world to deal with this new waste stream, hoping to find a way to deal with the promised future influx of blade waste. Cement co-processing is one potential solution, in which processed fiberglass waste is used as a component of cement mixes. Some of the waste can also be burned as fuel for the process, replacing fossil fuels in this application.
These methods have the side benefit of also reducing the carbon dioxide output of the cement-making process. Carbon fiber blades are unfortunately harder to recycle, with groups exploring alternative ideas. Chemical methods may be used, such as solvolysis, or pyrolysis, using very high temperatures to break down the materials. These aim to destroy the binder material, leaving behind the fibers which can then be dealt with separately.
There’s Always More To Be Done
The fact that these challenges have come to the attention of engineers the world over should not be seen as a bad thing. Rather, the fact that these matters are under consideration shows that those pushing for renewable energy are not content to simply replace fossil fuels. Instead, environmental groups and those working in industry are keen to make sure that renewable solutions are at their cleanest and most efficient across their entire lifecycle. Doing anything less would simply not be worthwhile. As the technology develops further, it is to be expected that a litany of new opportunities will arise to further reduce emissions. All we need to do is take them!