Wind generators are constructed to final. Their tall our bodies are topped with lengthy fiberglass blades, some greater than half a soccer subject in size, made to face up to the harshest, windiest circumstances.

However this sturdiness brings an enormous drawback: What to do with these blades once they attain the top of their lives.

Whereas about 90% of generators are simply recyclable, their blades should not. They’re made out of fiberglass certain along with epoxy resin, a fabric so sturdy it’s extremely troublesome and costly to interrupt down. Most blades finish their lives in landfill or are incinerated.

It’s an issue that’s vexed the wind power trade and offered fodder for individuals who search to discredit wind energy.

However in February, Danish wind firm Vestas mentioned it had cracked the issue.

It introduced a “breakthrough resolution” that will enable wind turbine blades to be recycled with no need to alter their design or supplies.

The corporate mentioned the “newly found chemical expertise” breaks down previous blades in a liquid to provide top quality supplies, which may ultimately be used to make new blades, in addition to elements in different industries.

Claire Barlow, a sustainability and supplies engineer at Cambridge College, advised CNN that if this type of expertise will be scaled up, it “could possibly be a sport changer.”

Wind turbine blades waiting to be  buried in the Casper Regional Landfill in Casper, Wyoming.

In 2019, a picture from Casper Regional Landfill in Wyoming exhibiting piles of lengthy, white blades ready to be buried went viral, prompting criticism of the environmental credentials of wind energy.

Wind power has been rising at a quick tempo. It’s the world’s main renewable power expertise behind hydropower, and performs a significant position in serving to international locations transfer away from fossil gas power, which pumps out planet-heating air pollution.

However as the primary era of wind generators begin to attain the top of their service lives, whereas others are changed early to make approach for newer expertise – together with longer turbine blades that may sweep extra wind and generate extra power – the query of what to do with their enormous blades turns into extra urgent.

Blade waste is projected to achieve 2.2 million tons within the US by 2050. Globally, the determine could possibly be round 43 million tons by 2050.

There are few simple methods to cope with it.

Present choices should not solely wasteful however have environmental drawbacks. Incineration brings air pollution and, whereas wind corporations say there is no such thing as a toxicity difficulty with landfilling blades, Barlow mentioned that’s not but completely clear.

“That’s not as benign as you would possibly assume,” she mentioned.

Turbine blade supplies make recycling onerous and dear. The epoxy resins used to make turbine blades are referred to as “thermosets.”

“In the event you warmth them up, they don’t change their properties till they simply burn,” Barlow mentioned. “You may’t simply scrunch them up and recycle the fabric into one thing simply reusable.”

That’s why Vestas hopes its new expertise may maintain actual promise.

“This has been the important thing sustainability problem within the trade. And so we’re after all very excited to have discovered an answer,” Lisa Ekstrand, the top of sustainability at Vestas, advised CNN.

The method, which the corporate has been engaged on in partnership with Aarhus College, the Danish Technological Institute and US-based epoxy firm Olin, makes use of a liquid chemical resolution to interrupt down the blade into epoxy fragments and fibers. The epoxy resin is then despatched to Olin which may course of it into “virgin-grade” epoxy, Ekstrand mentioned.

The method makes use of cheap, non-toxic chemical compounds which are available in massive portions, she added. “We anticipate this to be a low power consuming, low CO2-emitting expertise.”

The corporate stays tight-lipped on additional particulars, together with the chemical compounds concerned and what number of occasions the method will be repeated.

Ekstrand mentioned they’re submitting patents and the plan is ultimately to license it to different corporations.

Up to now, Vestas has examined the expertise in a lab however is now constructing a pilot facility to check it on a much bigger scale for 2 years, after which it hopes to commercialize it.

Vestas is way from the primary to attempt to deal with this knotty drawback. Firms and scientists have been engaged on completely different approaches for years, though many potential options are nascent or stay small scale.

One method is to grind blades up and use the fabric in different industries. The downsides are that the big blades are tough to move and crush. “As a result of the fabric isn’t price very a lot, it’s probably not worthwhile doing it,” Barlow mentioned.

An old blade is prepared for transport to a landfill in Nebraska.

However some corporations say they’re making it work.

Veolia, a useful resource administration firm headquartered in France, turns previous blades into an ingredient for cement manufacturing.

It shreds, types and blends blade supplies earlier than sending them to cement kilns. Utilizing this mix reduces the planet-heating air pollution produced in cement manufacturing by 27%, in line with Veolia. This system has processed 2,600 blades to this point.

Carbon Rivers, a Tennessee-based firm, has labored with the US Division of Vitality to assist scale up its “pyrolysis” expertise – a type of chemical recycling that makes use of very excessive warmth in an oxygen-free setting.

The corporate’s course of produces glass fibers, which may then be utilized in new wind turbine blades, in addition to within the automotive and delivery industries, it says. It additionally produces oil that can be utilized in power manufacturing, David Morgan, chief technique officer at Carbon Rivers, advised CNN.

The expertise permits them “to completely and fully upcycle wind turbine blades” in a course of that’s “web optimistic power,” Morgan added.

Carbon Rivers has to this point upcycled 41 blades weighing 268 tons and is constructing recycling services and with the intention of scaling as much as greater than 5,800 blades a day.

Different efforts give attention to altering the supplies used to make generators, to create a brand new era of blades which are simpler to recycle.

In 2022, researchers on the College of Michigan introduced that they had made a brand new resin for blades by combining glass fibers with a plant derived polymer and an artificial one, which could possibly be recycled into elements for merchandise, together with new turbine blades, laptop computer covers, energy instruments – and even gummy bear candies.

“We recovered food-grade potassium lactate and used it to make gummy bear candies, which I ate,” John Dorgan, a professor of chemical engineering at Michigan State College, mentioned in an announcement.

For these involved about consuming an previous turbine, Dorgan mentioned: “A carbon atom derived from a plant, like corn or grass, is not any completely different from a carbon atom that got here from a fossil gas. It’s all a part of the worldwide carbon cycle, and we’ve proven that we are able to go from biomass within the subject to sturdy plastic supplies and again to foodstuffs.”

After all, this gained’t assist with the blades being decommissioned now.

The explanation Vestas’ discovery could possibly be so compelling, mentioned Barlow, is that it’s promising a course of to recuperate reusable supplies from present turbine blades, with out utilizing noxious chemical compounds and big quantities of power. “That’s an actual winner,” she mentioned.

Now the corporate has to scale up.

“There will likely be all types of issues which they haven’t conceived of. So it could be gradual, however it is a good starter for ten,” Barlow mentioned.