Albert Ten Busschen is passionate about making wind energy truly green. He pointed out that at the moment, “turbine blades are made from materials that can’t be returned to their original components”. But, he added “they can be reused”.
His research at Windesheim College of Technology started with the issue of abandoned composite boats left to block up waterways and create navigation hazards. There are an estimated 13,000 of these end-of-life vessels in Holland alone, but with more than 6 million recreational craft in Europe “I expect the problem to get much worse”, underlined Ten Busschen.
Unfortunately, “despite three decades of talk around recycling the only option is burning the plastic, so we’ve had to find a different approach”.
This entails “leaving the material as it is, but mechanically breaking or cutting it into flakes or strips then binding them together in a new product”, he explained. The possibilities are also earth-saving. “Tropical hardwood is often used for beams or profiles in wet environments, for lining the retaining wall of canals – but in this situation, even high-quality hardwood only lasts for 30 years.”
On the other hand, “these reused composites make profiles which can last at least twice that… and I’d guess they could go on for 100 years or perhaps more”, he told MJ.
It’s useful for more than canal lining: Ten Busschen and his students have set up demonstrators for bridge guide rails and coverings, crane mats for building sites and even wall cladding – although he added “it’s very, very hard work” if it’s all created by individually cutting strips so shredding has been one answer.
There’s now another waste stream to deal with: the first generation of wind turbines are reaching the end of their life and therefore blade recycling has reached the agenda. These are interesting as they could, potentially, yield longer straight lengths, making for a higher strength product “if we installed commercial cutting equipment on site”, said Ten Busschen.
Still “it needs to get through the start-up phase and into manufacture” he explained.
Here, he admitted there have been “disappointments”. Despite the convincing case, an energy company has recently rejected investment in the necessary equipment to take the project forward. Still, Ten Busschen has faith that rising awareness of the problem will eventually win out.
Despite this, he and his team are focusing on the next problem: the mixed plastic fraction of household waste. It’s not easy to recycle, but it can be heated to create a shock-absorbing, insulating foam for the centre of heavy infrastructure beams. In fact the Dutch rail authorities “now seem interested in using them for railway sleepers”, he added.
Even given the obstacles, Ten Busschen continues to work at opening a forward pathway for end-of-life materials, “demonstrating that these processes are possible – and make a good, usable product”. One that doesn’t cost the earth.
By Stevie Knight
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