A cross-sector effort to find novel approaches to the recycling of wind turbine blades has been launched by lobbying group WindEurope, the European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic) and the European Composites Industry Association (EUCIA).

“The first generation of wind turbines are now starting to come to the end of their operational life and be replaced by modern turbines,” WindEurope chief executive Giles Dickson said.

“Recycling the old blades is a top priority for us, and teaming up with the chemical and compositors industries will enable us to do it in the most effective way.”

In 2018, wind supplied 14% of the electricity in the EU via 130,000 turbines, and this number will only grow in the coming decades, WindEurope said.

Turbine blades are made up of composite materials, which boosts their performance by allowing lighter and longer structures. Currently, 2.5 million tons of composite material are in use in the wind sector.

With an expected 12,000 turbines to be decommissioned in the next five years, broadening the range of recycling options is critical for the industry’s development, said the partners.

“The chemical industry plays a decisive role in the transition to a circular economy by investing in the research and development of new materials, which make wind turbine blades more reliable, affordable and recyclable,” Cefic director general Marco Mensink said.

Composite materials currently are being recycled at commercial scale through cement co-processing, where the cement raw materials are being partially replaced by the glass fibres and fillers in the composite, and the organic fraction replaces coal as a fuel.

Through that process, the CO2 output of the cement manufacturing process can be significantly reduced (up to 16 % reduction is possible if composites represent 75 % of cement raw materials).

Besides recycling through cement co-processing, alternative technologies like mechanical recycling, solvolysis (based on chemical reactions) and pyrolysis are being developed, ultimately providing the industry with additional solutions for end-of-life.

“The wind energy sector has always been at the forefront of using composites as they are instrumental to sustainable energy generation,” EUCIA president Roberto Frassine said.

“With this collaboration we hope to set a great industry standard that ultimately will also help customers in other industries like marine, and building and infrastructure.”