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Researchers develop novel 3D printing methods and recyclable materials to revolutionize wind turbine blade production: 'Blade manufacturing is quite arduous'

"Our proposed project is looking to dramatically reduce waste."

"Our proposed project is looking to dramatically reduce waste."

Photo Credit: iStock

Researchers at Virginia Tech are developing a method of robotically printing wind turbines, cutting down on waste and making the technology even more sustainable, the university reported.

While wind energy is undoubtedly a much more planet-friendly method of generating electricity than traditional dirty energy sources like gas and oil, the wind industry has the same issue that plagues many sources of renewable energy. The energy itself is clean, but the methods used to create the technology are not as planet-friendly as they could be.

For example, while electric vehicles do not create planet-overheating pollution, the batteries that power them require the mining of rare-earth metals. For wind energy, the manufacturing of wind turbines creates waste and uses non-renewable materials.

The Virginia Tech team — using a $2 million grant from the Department of Energy — is approaching this problem from two angles. Firstly, they are developing a method of 3D-printing the turbines, cutting down on waste. Secondly, they are employing a novel polymer composite material that is completely recyclable.

"Although the energy generated by wind turbines is green, the materials they are made of are not recyclable, create a tremendous amount of waste, and blade manufacturing is quite arduous," said Chris Williams, a Virginia Tech mechanical engineering professor leading the project. "Our proposed project is looking to dramatically reduce waste, completely eliminate all hazardous materials, and enable 3D printing of a completely recyclable wind turbine."

Wind energy — particularly offshore wind — is on the rise in the United States as the government aims for various clean energy benchmarks, such as 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030. Improving the processes used to create these wind turbines and making them more sustainable can only aid in achieving these necessary goals.

"We have a novel material design that, when processed through 3D printing, not only produces the properties that are traditionally used to make up wind turbine blades, but are also wholly recyclable," Michael Bortner, associate professor in Virginia Tech's Department of Chemical Engineering, said. "So if the blades get damaged or reach their end of life, we can break them down, reprocess them, and 3D-print them again into new blades."

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