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Essentially hidden

June 14th, 2021 / By: / My Take

by Janet Preus

Several years ago, IFAI Expo co-located with the composites show, JEC. The IFAI board chair took me around the JEC show floor, introduced me to some of the company representatives there and explained a bit more about why these two shows were a fit. 

“All composites have textiles in them,” he said, which I suppose I knew on some level, but until he pronounced it so definitively it was mostly “off my radar.” I should be forgiven for my small lapse. The textiles in composite applications may be essential, but they are also completely hidden.

One of the rigid composite end products that requires textiles, or textile fiber-based materials, is wind turbines. That’s right, those long blades gracefully plying the air in a wind farm require the participation of the textile industry. Fiber and textile products are key components. 

Regardless of how you may view these “farms,” they are here to stay for the foreseeable future, and they are growing in numbers. The myriad concerns with petroleum-based energy has wind energy systems looking like a more sustainable and even a more economical option. 

However, there is a larger issue with those very large contraptions dotting the landscape. They don’t last forever, so then what? The answer is, these enormous blades—sometimes longer than a Boeing 747 wing—end up sawed into smaller pieces and buried in landfills. One look at one of these graveyards will make it clear enough that this is not a sustainable scenario. That’s the bad news. 

The good news is that “at least 85-90 percent of the composites in a wind generator are capable of being recycled,” Marie O’Mahony reports in our feature, “Textiles’ role in a growing energy industry.” The European wind generation industry is leading the way in recycling the products they make, looking into various processes to recycle and reuse as many materials as possible, and if they can do it, we can do it. We can’t keep digging holes and burying rigid composite structures close to the size of a small jet – even if they are sawed into pieces. 

Fortunately, we don’t have to. American companies, too, are coming up with novel solutions to recycle wind turbine blades. National Wind Watch Inc. reported online February 5, 2020, that the start-up Global Fiberglass Solutions in Sweetwater, Texas, developed a process that can break down the blades and make pellets that are then used in fiber board. The location was no accident. It is near North America’s largest concentration of wind farms. 

While this may seem to be several degrees removed from the textile industry you know, it’s still a market for textile products – technically specific products, to be sure, but the industry is big. We can’t ignore it any more than you can drive past a wind farm and not look at it. Those blades are so enormous, and to see so many of them quietly churning around together gives one a sense of the potential power of this market segment. 

Janet Preus is senior editor of Advanced Textiles Source. She can be reached at jlpreus@ifai.com