Pioneering SME: 2nd Life Composites
Start-up 2nd Life Composites has come up with a smart way to recycle wind turbine blades. By reducing and separating the blades of composite material in a dosed manner, two main streams result. They can be used as raw materials for high-quality applications in other industries. If all goes well, there will be a 10 kton factory by the end of 2022, director Willem Jan van Asselt expects.
What is the problem that you will solve?
"In 2017 an image of a ‘mass grave’ of discarded wind turbine blades in the United States went viral. The problem is that wind turbine blades consist of thermoset composite plastic, a combination of glass fibres and thermosets such as polyester or epoxy. This glass fibre reinforced composite material gives the turbine blades an ideal combination of light weight, stiffness, dimensional stability, strength, and long life. Unlike thermoplastics, you cannot remelt and process thermosets. Therefore, the thermoset composite is considered not to be recyclable. You can reuse the material, coarsely ground, in roads, furniture, or exotic applications such as bicycle sheds. These are not high-quality or mass-applicable solutions. Now that the first generation of turbine blades are reaching the end of their life span after 20 years, a major environmental problem is looming. You can either store those sheets underground or burn them. Fiberglass, yet at least half of the blade, does not burn. Therefore, the calorific value is low: combustion produces little energy, not to mention the emission of CO₂. Combustion in cement kilns, which uses glass as a raw material, is the best alternative for the time being. We make turbine blades completely recyclable.”
What is the core of your solution?
“Before entering the incinerator, turbine blades are ground into flakes of 10-20 centimetres. We have developed a smart way to further reduce the material mechanically and to separate it in such a way that two main streams remain: glass fibre bundles with a length of 1-2 centimetres and powder of thermosets (resin). Our product is not suitable for new turbine blades, because you need glass fibre mats, continuous fibres. However, the glass fibre fractions can perfectly serve as raw materials for a lot of normal high-quality applications in cars, electronics, transformer houses, turbine nacelles, et cetera. The resin powder can be used as a filler for e.g., cement and plastics that are processed into various application for which you need stiffness, such as crates.”
What are the benefits of your innovation?
“The owners of wind turbine blades are responsible for the processing of their waste. They do not want to bury or burn the material at all. We offer a very practical solution, which they can use quickly. If you no longer burn turbine blades but recycle them, no CO₂ is released. Our process only uses electricity, which can be supplied by the wind industry itself. The residual flows also have value for applications in other industries. The production of new glass fibres from silicate is energy intensive. If you use recycled material instead, it not only saves energy, but it also limits the share of virgin raw material. The same goes for the resin powder. In the long run, the 'gate fee' that the wind industry currently pays, could possibly turn into a business model. By checking the process at the front, we can deliver a high-quality raw material.”
How far are you now?
“2nd Life Composites was founded at the end of 2020, but the three founders, Rob Seuren, Jos van Beek and me, have been working on this project for a long time. We have many years of experience in the plastics industry, waste processing and financial services. Recently, we have successfully tested the process on a commercial scale. We linked the existing and the new machine. We ran a pilot with an installation that corresponds to a factory of 10 kton. So, we have already scaled up the process. I estimate we are at TRL level 8-9. Our samples are now tested by potential customers and knowledge institutes. We will initially focus on the first generation of onshore wind turbine blades, which mainly consist of fiberglass and thermosets. They will soon reach the end of their lifespan and are relatively simple in composition.”
What are your challenges?
“The wind turbine industry is interested. We are in consultation with major energy companies to see to what extent they are willing to contribute to additional processing costs. Finding a sales market is a bigger challenge. There are still residues of resin on the glass fibres. The question is how pure the glass fibres really need to be to meet the specifications that customers set for their applications. We are working on optimizing purity. Pure glass is not our goal, but the question is whether this is technically necessary and economically feasible. Obtaining permits is also a challenge. You cannot build a waste processor everywhere. Furthermore, we want the status of end-of-waste for our end products, i.e., of a secondary raw material. That takes time.”
What are your next steps?
“At the beginning of 2022, we will make a decision whether we need to carry out additional tests or whether we will invest in a commercial 10 kton plant. If all goes well, that factory could be operational a year later. In the long run, we want to build several of these relatively small factories in Europe. It is logistically inconvenient to drag turbine blades from everywhere to a factory. In the meantime, we are working on the processing of more complex turbine blades, such as in the offshore industry, where discarded blades will show up in 4 – 5 years. These modern blades also contain carbon, copper wire, foam, and wood. The principle for reducing the blades remains the same. To separate multiple flows, we still have to make some progress.”
What is the added value of TKI Wind op Zee?
“We need a platform such as TKI Wind op Zee to find partners, to enter into consortia, especially on the decommissioning side. They help us to get in touch with relations. TKI Wind op Zee is also particularly useful for thinking along about the best approach and getting more publicity – we are further along than most people think. In addition, we are always looking for subsidies. We are working on an application for EU Horizon 2020 to set up a business chain. We mainly rely on general schemes such as DEI++, but more specific schemes and programs for offshore wind could be of interest.”