A team of scientists is developing new material for wind turbine blades that you can eat.
Researchers at Michigan State University developed a composite resin that can be used in the construction of blades for wind turbines. The resin is composed of glass fibers, an organic polymer, and a synthetic polymer. The resin can be broken down into its component parts and recycled into new turbine material. But the material can also be broken down further and used to make other plastic products, synthetic stone countertops, acrylics, and even candy and sports drinks.
“The beauty of our resin system is that at the end of its use cycle, we can dissolve it, and that releases it from whatever matrix it’s in so that it can be used over and over again in an infinite loop,” Michigan State chemical engineering professor John Dorgan said in a statement to the American Chemical Society. “That’s the goal of the circular economy.”
Dorgan and his research team used the components to create thermoplastic panels that could be used in wind turbines or on automobiles. The plastic could be dissolved in other chemicals called monomers; after removing the glass fibers, the resin could be recast into new panels that retained the same physical properties as the panels from which they were constructed.
When the recycled resin is mixed with other materials, it can create synthetic stone used to make kitchen countertops or bathroom sinks; it can also be shredded and mixed with other materials like plastic covers for electronics or home appliances, Dorgan added in a presentation to the American Chemical Society on Tuesday.
The resin can also be broken down by digestion, using basic chemicals, like an alkaline solution of baking soda and water, Dorgan said in the presentation. When digested, the chemical reaction yields a chemical called poly(methyl methacrylate), otherwise known as plexiglass, which is used in windows, vehicle lamps, clear barriers, and other products. The chemical can also be turned into poly(methacrylic acid), a super-absorbent polymer used in the manufacture of diapers.
The alkaline digestion also produced lactic acid, which the researchers distilled into food-grade potassium lactate, an ingredient commonly found in sports drinks and candy. “We recovered food-grade potassium lactate and used it to make gummy bear candies, which I ate,” Dorgan said in the press release. He also said that there is no difference between chemicals from the reaction and the same chemicals produced other ways. “A carbon atom derived from a plant, like corn or grass, is no different from a carbon atom that came from a fossil fuel,” he said. “It’s all part of the global carbon cycle, and we’ve shown that we can go from biomass in the field to durable plastic materials and back to foodstuffs.”
Dorgan said the new resin could help solve the problem of properly disposing of windmills.
An NPR report from 2021 found that windmill blades, which are made from fiberglass, are nearly impossible to recycle and expensive to dispose of, so they end up taking up huge amounts of space in landfills when they need to be scrapped. But first, researchers need to produce enough of the resin to use on a larger scale. “[T]here’s not enough of the bioplastic that we’re using to satisfy this market, so there needs to be considerable production volume brought online if we’re going to actually start making wind turbines out of these materials,” Dorgan said.