A major project to tackle the issue of recycling wind turbine blades has been rubber stamped after winning a UK Government grant.
A consortium, led by Aker Offshore Wind (AOW) and Scottish researchers, is hoping the scheme will unlock a more sustainable future for the wind sector, as well as the wider composites manufacturing industry.
In doing so the group aims to accelerate the drive to net zero emissions and waste, while also creating new skills and job opportunities.
In addition to AOW, the £2 million three-year project also features trade body Composites UK and researchers at the Strathclyde University’s advanced composites group and lightweight manufacturing centre.
Other academic and industry partners include Nottingham University, global waste management firm SUEZ, composite distributor GRP Solutions and manufacturer Cubis.
Ultimately the project’s objective is to commercialise a revolutionary method developed by Strathclyde University to separate the glass-fibre and resin components in composites and recover the former.
They can then be reprocessed, moulded, and reused in other industries, such as the motor trade and construction.
UK Govt funding secured
Innovate UK, the UK Government’s innovation agency, has awarded £1.3m to the project, with AOW footing the £500,000 needed to make the project a reality.
Malcolm Offord, UK Government minister for Scotland, said: “Offshore wind is playing an important role in our plans to reach net zero, particularly in Scotland.
“It’s great news that this funding will support the development of wind turbine blade recycling, helping prevent blades ending up in landfill and furthering our green ambitions.
“In line with the goals agreed at COP26, the UK Government is investing in research and innovation projects right across the UK to help create a greener future.”
The last piece of the puzzle
Turbine blades are seen as the last hurdle in creating a circular economy for wind turbines, and numerous projects are ongoing to tackle the conundrum.
At present, when blades reach the end of their working lives, there are only two options for disposing of them.
Either they can be sent to landfill or to waste-to-energy plants, where they are combusted at significant energy cost.
As the number of turbines in use ramps up in the coming years, waste from blades alone is expected to reach around 2 million tonnes globally by 2050
UK volumes of composite waste already exceed 100,000 tonnes per year.
A Europe wide band on landfill
AOW has pledged its support to trade body WindEurope’s call for a Europe-wide landfill ban on decommissioned wind turbine blades by 2025.
The pilot project will now try to find a futureproofed solution, with the aim of making recycling of composite parts the norm.
Sian Lloyd-Rees, managing director of AOW UK, said: “This project will be an important piece in our drive to accelerate the move to net zero waste and emissions and demonstrates Aker Offshore Wind’s commitment to sustainability across the lifecycle of a wind project; all while investing in Scotland and the UK to build a more sustainable future for decades to come.
“At COP26 we heard the urgent call for action and this planned innovation will answer that call to secure tangible solutions for circular business models. The Innovate UK grant will make blade recycling a firm reality, building on the expertise of the researchers at Strathclyde University and our decades of experience at Aker Offshore Wind to create a commercially-viable green solution.”
Malcolm Forsyth, sustainability manager at Composites UK and overall project leader, said: “This project is a vital step towards establishing a commercial recycling route for composite materials in the UK and beyond, covering both wind turbine blades and several other applications in the construction and transport sectors.
“Composite materials combining glass-fibre and polymer resin systems, have a huge role to play in enabling the UK economy to transition to net zero and we need effective recycling at end of life to ensure that composite materials achieve high levels of circularity in future.
“Composites UK and all the project partners are very excited that this break-through technology scale-up project has now been funded by the UK government and will make the recycling of glass-fibre composites a commercial reality in the UK in the years to come.”
Professor Sir Jim McDonald, Principal of Strathclyde, said: “Wind energy is a key component of the transition to net zero and it is essential that the technology and materials that provide renewable energy are as sustainable as they can be.
“As we have seen at COP26 in Glasgow, a global move to renewable, sustainable sources of energy will help to make some of the biggest advances in the quest to tackle climate change. At Strathclyde, we have developed novel processes for recycling and reusing wind turbine blades, which will help to reduce waste in the renewables sector and wider industry.
“This project, and our partnership with Aker Offshore Wind, are examples of the research and industrial engagement which has placed Strathclyde at the forefront of innovation in renewable energy and composites sustainability.”