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Why wind turbine blades could one day be made of vegetables

Posting in Energy

Wind turbines are the very symbol of clean energy. Not only do they actually use renewable energy, but they are also more photogenic than, say, solar panels or a geothermal plant.

But one thing most people aren't aware of is that wind turbines do have a polluting side: When turbines stop functioning, the blades are pretty much near impossible to recycle -- which is, literally, a big problem, because turbine blades can be as long as a football field and weigh 18 tons.

Just tossing out a Brobdingnagian broken blade like that is impossible. No landfill is big enough to take old blades. Most blades are disposed of by being cut or ground up and then incinerated or buried in landfills or roads. And this is a lot of work.

That's where this big idea comes in: What if you made the turbines of different materials? What if, instead of carbon-fiber composites and petroleum-based products, you used biodegradable materials? Then you wouldn't have to put in all the work to send the blades to a landfill.

To pursue this goal, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is giving $1.9 million to the University of Massachusetts's mechanical engineer Christopher Niezrecki and the University of Wichita to find, as Fast Company puts it, "biological-derived materials for biodegradable blade materials that replace carbon-fiber composites and petroleum-based epoxies, the current industry standard."

What seems likely is that some form of bio-based plastic made from soybean, linseed and other vegetable oils, plus cellulose fibers, could form the next generation of blades.

Whatever they come up with should help address a growing problem. By 2030, the U.S. will have about 170,000 wind turbines (20% of the country's installed capacity), and that could mean up to 34,000 discarded blades every year. Globally, that figure could be as high as 170,000 by then.

Related on SmartPlanet:

via: Fast Company

photo: Ignacio Malapitan III/Wikimedia

— By on November 14, 2012, 1:12 PM PST

Laura Shin

Features Editor

Laura Shin has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and is currently a contributor at Forbes. Previously, she worked at Newsweek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LearnVest. She holds degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure