Eat it up: Turning wind turbine blades into gummy bears

In a classic case of “mind over matter,” Michigan State University engineers are advancing a new way to recycle wind turbine blades: Eating them. 

The blades aren’t edible in their current form, of course, but rather by transforming a new, renewable composite resin into products like gummy bears.

The new, carbon-based material combines glass fibers – like the fiberglass used in turbine blades – with one synthetic and one plant-based polymer. The material can be dissolved and the glass fibers removed, then the polymer can be recast into new turbine blades or used in other products. 

The process of breaking down the novel bioplastic also produces food-grade potassium lactate, which is in products such as sports drinks and candy. The researchers used the potassium lactate they recovered to make gummy bears, which they ate.

Some people might be reluctant to eat something that started off as a wind turbine blade, but John Dorgan, MSU chemical engineering professor, says they shouldn’t be.

“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 in a news release. “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.”

Variety of applications

The U.S. Department of Energy provided funding for the researchers to use their bioplastic in more efficient and sustainable wind turbines. But the resin also can be used for other purposes by changing the temperature or other properties of the breakdown process or by combining the bioplastic with other materials.

It’s suitable for sustainable packaging, textiles, appliances, computer housings, and lightweight vehicle body components. Rearranging carbon-based material in this way adds flexibility to material design, Dorgan explained during this week’s American Chemical Society fall meeting in Chicago. 

“This idea of molecular flexibility – being able to move carbon from one type of carbon to another type of carbon – is perhaps the big idea here,” Dorgan said. Although “it’s great to be able to go back to the same thing that you [originally] made,” perhaps turbine designs will be drastically different in 30 years and then “you want to use the material for something else.”

The researchers performed several test cycles with their biopolymer and proved that its properties are sustained in future uses.

Growing trend

Researchers increasingly are studying opportunities to convert inedible products, often waste, into food products. The concept shows promise as a dual solution to address the global problems of waste and hunger.

For example, a research team at Michigan Technological University is perfecting a technology that turns plastics into protein powder via a readily-available plastic-eating bacteria. Quorn Foods, whose sole U.S. presence is in Chicago, develops edible protein from crop waste that is typically discarded or burned. And Colorado startup Mad Agriculture, which spun out of the University of Colorado Boulder, uses fly larvae to gobble up food waste; the insects are then used as a more economical animal feed.

What’s next

The MSU team is working toward commercializing certain forms of their bioplastic. While recycling end-of-life wind turbine blades into new blades is a key use for the innovation, wind turbines are so large and require so much material that it would be difficult to meet demand with the amount of this bioplastic currently being produced. Academia and industry have to work toward increasing production capacity for that application to be feasible, Dorgan said.

The researchers especially are working to advance the use of the resin in engineered stone products such as countertops. That’s a more practical short-term goal because the engineered stone requires far less resin than wind turbines. The researchers already are in discussions with engineered stone manufacturers, Dorgan said.

“We really have a wide variety of choices for what to do with this material at the end of life,” he said.