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.
To answer those questions, Englund helped GFSI test panels to see if the material science behind its recycling process was sound. The team compared three types of panels side by side: a wood composite oriented strand board, a wooden panelboard and GFSI’s recycled fiberglass panel. In the GE report, Englund said GFSI’s panels showed better water resistance, mechanical properties, resistance to bio-deterioration and fire resistance than both wood panels.
In addition to a materially sound process, GFSI has distinguished itself from competitors by using an innovative software known as Blade Tracker. The software is designed to help capture the end-of-life cycles of the blades themselves by identifying the exact section of a wind turbine blade being recycled, along with its resin type, glass fiber type, shape and more. That’s something Lilly and Englund believe many OEMs don’t know how to do.
“Knowledge is everything,” says Englund. “The more we know, the more we can accommodate into the final recycling process.”
To give OEMs an added incentive to recycle with GFSI’s system, Lilly reached out to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which made GFSI a part of its WasteWise program. The program encourages organizations and businesses to achieve sustainability in their practices and reduce industrial waste.
By using the Blade Tracker software, GFSI is able to provide OEMs with a “certiﬁcate of decommissioning” once their blades have been recycled, and then submit the composite waste information back to the EPA. The EPA, in turn, assigns the OEM or wind farm a “WasteWise Endorser” certiﬁcate, which signifies that the end-of-life blades have been recycled and used to make sustainable products.
Today, Lilly says, GFSI’s process has been refined to the point where it can take a full-size turbine blade, get it off the farm and fully recycled in less than 20 minutes. When the recycling process is finished, a customer like GE can buy back its old wind blades as new products. In 20 years, those recycled products will wear out. But according to Lilly, that presents a unique opportunity.
“If I give you my product today … I’m going to do one thing that most companies don’t do,” Lilly says. “I’m going to ask you ‘Can I have it back?’ Because I can take the same material and reuse it again.”
According to Lilly, companies all around the world are happy to oblige. Three of the four biggest wind manufacturers in China have contacted GFSI about keeping fiberglass out of landfills. “I’m really surprised actually how much of the initiative they are trying to push with regards to the environmental side of it,” Lilly says. “That’s an interesting uptick we never expected from China.”
Englund says GFSI’s success opens the door to opportunities to recycle many other products that feature FRP. He calls wind turbine blades “the low hanging fruit.”
“Maybe the same processing platform won’t work for other types of fiberglass material,” Englund says. “Maybe it will work. We’re just going to have to research to figure out how we can continue this movement.”
In response to the growth of recycling in the composites industry and the increased demand to learn more about it, ACMA has created its first-ever Composites Recycling Conference. Taking place in Knoxville, Tenn., from April 10-12, 2018, the conference will bring in experts from around the world to highlight the most relevant technology and business developments, including the ACMA/IACMA Recycling Project. Registration will open Dec. 4, 2017. For more information, visit acmanet.org/recycling.