For the past few years, Bothell, Wash.-based Global Fiberglass Solutions Inc. (GFSI) has succeeded in taking GFRP wind turbine blades and recycling them into new products like manhole covers and building walkways. In less than 10 years of existence, GFSI has already built an impressive clientele featuring some of the biggest names in wind energy, including GE. According to a June 2017 report from GE, GFSI has recycled 564 blades for them in less than a year. By using GFSI’s recycling process, GE could reuse 50 million pounds of waste in the next couple of years.
As the report explains, GFSI’s recycling process begins at a wind farm, where technicians cut blades into 18.5-meter chunks. To avoid hazardous dust, GFSI uses wet wire blades that are thin and strong enough to slice open each wind blade. The company then sprays a little bit of water on each blade so that the debris goes into a giant dustpan.
Next, GFSI loads the dismantled blades onto flatbed trucks and hauls them to nearby yards where the blades are shredded into raw fiberglass material known as feedback. GFSI is able to reuse 100 percent of each blade with a patented formula that turns the crushed fiberglass into innovative products made of fiberglass mixed with rock and filler. At no point does GFSI attempt to liberate the entire glass fiber from the composite blade.
“You can’t add a bunch of chemicals to something that is basically garbage and make it economically viable,” says Dr. Karl Englund, an associate professor at Washington State University with expertise in composite recycling. “You have to keep it simple.”
According to Don Lilly, GFSI’s president and CEO, the company’s mode of waste transportation is far more cost effective than transporting blades to a landfill. While OEMs and wind farms are charged $15 to $22 per mile in transportation, dumping and tipping fees, GFSI only charges half that price.
“In essence, that was the start of [the business] because what we figured out right then and there, the cost of doing business is a profit up front,” Lilly says.
Although the market was open for GFSI when it went into business in 2009, the company was not immediately focused on profit. As GE explains, there were a number of technical details, such as the percentage of fibers from each wind turbine blade that would go into each individual product, which GFSI had to figure out to perfect the science behind the recycling.