Researchers from Scotland have come up with an innovative method for extracting further value from decommissioned wind turbines.
Hailed as a potential sustainability boost for the renewables and manufacturing sectors, the new technology could pave the way for rare elements to be extracted from waste alloy metals.
They can then be combined with steel, helping to improve the strength and stability of high-impact machinery.
Funded by the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC), the process is being developed by Aberdeenshire-based SEM and researchers from Edinburgh University.
Rare metals – like niobium, tantalum and rhenium – are typically mined overseas using damaging environmental methods.
But by recovering them from aged wind turbines, of which there are an increasing number in Scotland, manufacturers could create new alloy metals without the need for imports.
As it stands there is no option for extracting these rare metals in the UK and firms have to send waste to one of the only existing facilities in Canada for processing.
That could soon be about to change though after the SEM, Edinburgh Uni initiative developed a process for extracting rare metals in a sustainable way.
Leigh Cassidy, lead scientist at SEM, said: “Metals like niobium, tantalum and rhenium are essential for the integrity of steel-based components commonly used in wind turbines and other high-temperature engines, but most of the stocks are still mined from the earth. Meanwhile, we have ageing infrastructure coming to the end of its lifecycle and substantial amounts of these rare metals which could be re-used.
“We have already worked with the University of Edinburgh on methods for safely extracting metals from waste electronics and saw an opportunity to explore a similar technique for separating the different metals in alloys. If used at scale, this type of process could be a big boost for UK manufacturing and unlock a new sustainable, circular supply chain where rare metals are recovered from existing alloys.
“Only small quantities of these rare metals are obtained as a result of the destructive mining processes, but with a process like this adopted at scale, there should be no need to cause additional harm to the planet.
“We are proud of the success achieved in this project and collaboration certainly played a key role. The project has contributed to the company’s mission of turning waste into value by focusing on resource recovery. We’re excited to continue exploring ways to collaborate with others and further advance solutions that showcase the art of the possible for industries looking to build upon sustainable processes.”
The partnership developed the method with the help of waste materials supplied by Advanced Alloy Services, a Sheffield-based manufacturer of high-temperature alloys and metals for sectors such as aerospace, oil and gas and renewables.
After separating the different compounds in the alloy materials, by treating them with bio-based chemicals, SEM’s DRAM acts as a filter to ensure resultant waste liquids are safe to dispose of.
The DRAM technology, which uses co-products from the distillation of malt whisky, was first developed to safely extract valuable metals from waste electronics.
Liz Fletcher, director of business engagement at IBioIC, added: “SEM is a great example of a business taking a bio-based process and applying it to multiple sectors to help companies achieve environmental goals. By joining forces with academic experts, SEM has developed potentially game-changing processes for sustainably treating various types of waste. Recycling at an industrial scale will be key to achieving net zero, while also reducing the carbon footprint and environmental damage associated with imported raw materials.”