Would You Eat a Windmill? These Scientists Hope So.

Pictures of a rusty wind turbine and gummy bears

Although they are an excellent source of renewable energy, wind turbines, like most manufactured products, eventually have to be phased out, for one reason or another. This obviously poses a big problem given their size, but researchers at Michigan State University are working on a new solution: a newly developed material to make turbines that can be later recycled in everything from car parts with gummy bears.

The same arguments for upgrading your smartphone each year, such as improving its performance or the replacement of a very worn device, also applies to wind turbines. Swapping out larger, lighter blades can improve a wind turbine’s efficiency and power, but getting rid of a mobile device that slips into your pocket is much easier than getting rid of a blade in fiberglass measuring over 250 feet in length – or three of them, to be exact. Current wind turbine blades can be recycled into other products, such as building materials, but the practice is not yet widespread and these gigantic components often end up in landfills.

A team of researchers from Michigan State University, led by John Dorgan, Ph.D., is try to change that, and recently presented a new solution for finding new life for wind turbine blades. DAt the American Chemical Society (ACS) fall meeting, the group detailed how this has has developed a new thermoplastic resin composed of glass fibers combined with synthetic and plant-based polymers. Iit is strong enough to be used in manufacturing wind turbine blades which, when they are no longer needed, could be chopped and dissolved to be remelted into other products. These products include car parts, but can also be much more unexpected.

When mixed with minerals, turbine blades dissolved could be used to produce cultured stone products such as artificial granite countertops, or the reclaimed material could be ground and mixed with other resins and used in injection molding machines to create toys or other plastic products without loss of product quality.

Processing salvaged material in other ways offers even more intriguing recycling possibilities. An alkaline solution can be used to digest thermoplastic resin to release poly(methyl methacrylate): a transparent plastic material often used as a sustainable alternative to glass. Oith higher temperatures, we can go further to convert poly(methyl methacrylate) into poly(methacrylic acid): a super-absorbent material used in diapers. A by-product of these recycling processes is potassium lactate which, after being purified to the point of being food grade, was used by the team to create gummy bear candies, which they ate.

The next step is to use the new thermoplastic resin to make wind turbine blades test how they hold up in real world conditions such as rain, snow and whatever Mother Nature can throw at them. Successful testing could see greater demand for the new bioplastic, that the team hopes lead to interested companies manufacturing en masse like a viable and affordable alternative to traditional fiberglass materials. If it is impossible to source and too expensive, it does not matter how easy it is to recycle: no one will want to use it.

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