The blades of a wind turbine are the only component that cannot be recycled. These businesses are attempting to create new goods out of blades.
About 85% of a wind turbine’s parts, such as the steel tower, copper wire, and gearing, can be recycled after it reaches the end of its useful life. On the other hand, turbines blades have proven to be a more difficult problem.
These blades, which are mostly made of fiberglass, don’t have the metals and minerals that recyclers are drawn to. Additionally, they have an epoxy resin coating that makes them extremely hard to crush. Consequently, most obsolete turbine blades are disposed of in landfills or burned.
This presents a challenge for a sector that is expanding quickly, adding more wind power and producing more blades annually. In 2022, about 78 gigawatts of wind generating capacity were installed worldwide. An industry group called the Global Wind Energy Council predicts that at least another 1,000 gigawatts of wind farms will be constructed by the end of this decade.
The largest turbine manufacturers in the world are working harder to produce recyclable blades to meet this issue. However, it will take years to develop and refine that technology. Turbines that were erected in the early aughts are beginning to lose their useful life in the meantime. By 2025, projections suggest that 25,000 metric tons of wind turbine blades will be phased out annually in Europe alone.
Angela Nagle, a former Intel engineer who co-founded BladeBridge an Irish company in 2022 to turn retired turbine blades into pedestrian bridges, says, “We’re delaying the disposal”. As for the recycled bridges, Nagle says they buy the technology in advance, even though they will eventually need to be replaced. According to her, “it’s postponing the issue to see if someone else can come up with a third life solution”.
BladeBridge is one of the few companies that recycles wind turbine blades to create new products. These repurposed products, which include playgrounds, bike racks, and park seats, aren’t necessarily as affordable as new. However, the early adopters are achieving the necessary strides to keep the clean energy transition from posing additional environmental risks.
In the Netherlands, a playground with turbine blades
In order to commission a new playground, the Rotterdam-based Foundation Kinderparadijs Meidoorn turned to Superuse Studios, an architecture practice that specializes in repurposing obsolete materials. One of the first wind turbine repurposing initiatives in history was the product of the partnership.
Completed in 2008, the playground in the yard of the Kinderparadijs Meidoorn is designed like a maze and is made of five damaged turbine blades. Children can crawl through a tunnel that was previously an 80-foot (25-meter) blade, and they can climb towers made of blade bases. The playground “is still in very good shape,” according to Jos de Krieger, a partner at Superuse, who recently inspected the project. It opened about 15 years ago.
According to De Krieger, the playground has two advantages: it provides an environmentally friendly piece of infrastructure and keeps turbine blades out of landfills and incinerators. According to an independent evaluation, Superuse’s turbine-blade playground had a carbon footprint that was about 90% lower than that of similar equipment built of steel and wood.
Turbine blades were first employed by Superuse in the Kinderparadijs Meidoorn project. By 2021, the company had gained sufficient experience to open a new company called Blade-Made, which specializes in upcycling blades into benches, playgrounds, and climbing walls.
Ireland’s turbine-blade bridges
Ireland leads the world in wind energy production with 4,500 megawatts of installed capacity domestically with onshore wind turbines that date back to 1992. For this reason, during the coming decades, a wave of wind turbine retirements is anticipated in Ireland. The owners of wind farms will require more environmentally friendly waste management solutions as the government steps up its efforts to keep waste out of landfills.
One such option is an 5.5-meter pedestrian bridge outside Cork City. BladeBridge created the bridge from the ground up by utilizing two 42-foot-long retired turbine blades for the side girders and several other structural elements that would normally be constructed of steel.
According to Nagle, the bridge was commissioned by the county and is a component of a new cycling route, one of many that Ireland is now developing. BladeBridge calculates that over the course of a 60-year lifespan, the emissions from their project will be 17% lower than those of traditional pedestrian bridges due to the reduced use of steel. On a well-traveled hiking trail, the business is also constructing two more blade bridges, which it hopes to finish by 2024.
A bicycle shelter in Denmark with turbine blades
A distinctively designed bicycle shelter with a swooping curve lies in the main parking lot at the Port of Aalborg in Denmark. It has a roof to keep bikes and riders dry and wind protected. The port’s environmental coordinator, Brian Dalby Rasmussen, claims that the shelter was created as an alternative to the more traditional, “boring” bike shed designs in an effort to encourage more staff members to ride their bicycles.
Rasmussen was motivated by the Port of Aalborg’s significant role as a hub for Denmark’s wind industry, and a Siemens Gamesa turbine manufacturing facility nearby agreed to contribute a portion of a discarded blade for the project.
After that, things became more difficult. Without any information or blueprints of the blade, design and calculations were difficult, so Rasmussen—a civil engineer by profession—built the first scale model at home using cardboard and wood. Building the shelter involved a lot of trial and error, and the engineers, blacksmiths, and builders faced several difficulties while handling a 3-ton piece of fiberglass.
More than a year after Rasmussen constructed the initial prototype, the shelter opened in late 2019 to overwhelmingly excellent reviews. Rasmussen hopes the strategy inspires additional businesses. He claims that a wind turbine blade is “almost indestructible.” “And when the design is done correctly, it’s gorgeous.”
US park benches with turbine blades
One of the first things people notice about the seats at Every Child’s Playground in Avon, Ohio, is their exquisite design. The Ohio business Canvus creates their droplet-shaped shells, which are decorated by local artists, from retired wind turbine blades.
Canvus provides 11 large-scale producible blade-based products. For example, its “deborah” bench offers shade protection and a swing; its “beacon” form can be a bench, planter, or fountain. Parker Kowalski, a co-founder of Canvus, claims that their artisans have restored several hundred blades to life thus far.
The majority of the company’s clientele are corporations, who purchase benches and planters to donate to public areas. Each piece, which ranges in price from around $3,500 to $9,500, serves as a promotional tool for the donor, whose name is listed on a plaque that is attached. Canvus has sold more than 300 items since it started commercial manufacturing in June, and these products are currently placed in dozens of US sites, according to Kowalski.
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