“Carbon fiber and fiberglass composite waste provides a whole stream of material that we are currently not utilizing but instead sending to landfills,” emphasizes Englund. Recycled fiberglass usually ends up as filler in concrete, he says, where it doesn’t add much value. He hopes to change that. “The goal is to create value-added products that do more than serve as filler – products where the fact that they are recycled is icing on the cake,” he says. He believes getting there requires a commercial partner like GFSI to ensure the products are economically viable.

Founded in 2008 to create quality products from recycled fiberglass, GFSI initially explored sourcing fiberglass from decommissioned boats and Boeing aircraft before settling on wind turbine blades. The company harvested its first decommissioned blades from a wind farm in The Dalles, Ore., in 2010. GFSI harvests the 165- to 173-foot-long blades by cutting them into large pieces that it transports on flatbed trucks, a method that allows GFSI to offer blade recycling for significantly less than the cost of sending blades to landfills with large trailers.

By the time Englund receives the blade material, it has been cut into 2 x 2-inch blocks that will accommodate the lab’s shredders, hammer mills and disc mills – equipment that was previously used to break down wood products. Englund runs the blocks through the shredders and mills to produce different particle sizes in just a few seconds.

Englund then creates and tests panels made from different combinations of the fiberglass particles, resins and fillers to determine suitability for various products developed by GFSI. Although details of the combinations are proprietary – or the “secret sauce” as Lilly puts it – he acknowledges he uses bio-resins with low to no VOC emissions and fillers include rock, minerals and additives. The company uses a heated platen press to consolidate the test panels, which are cured at room temperature for 60 to 90 minutes and come out of the mold “as is.”

Englund says wind blades are great for research because each one contains so much material and that material is consistent – typically a combination of structural balsa wood, resin and glass fibers, with the bulk of the weight in glass fibers.

Englund believes this research may first lead to “low hanging fruit” commercial products, such as panels for residential use or other applications that will add value or replace wood-based products. Meanwhile, GFSI, which plans to open its first plant in Bothell, Wash., this fall, is in pre-production stage with some of its products and is partnering with other manufacturers to produce railroad and subway ties, decorative bases for utility poles, utility poles, manhole covers, jersey barriers and roof cladding.

As the collaboration continues, neither side will run out of FRP blade material anytime soon. GFSI has more than 125 wind blades on hand, while Englund simply laughs when asked how many blades he is working with. “It will probably take me the rest of my life to finish working on one!”

Modeling Tool Comes of Age

Project: Composite simulation software
School: Purdue University
Location: West Lafayette, Ind.
Principle Investigator: Wenbin Yu

Until now, the complexity of composite structures required cumbersome simulation programs to model their performance characteristics. Finite element analysis (FEA) has often been used for simulation, however the intricacy of a composite part makes it more difficult to deliver accurate results. Wenbin Yu, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Purdue University, has developed a high-fidelity simulation tool for modeling of composite parts that is designed to unify structural and micromechanics modeling.