Michigan State University researchers develop system to potentially recycle wind turbine materials into gummy bears; resin digestion system can selectively process composites into PMMA, fiberglass, and potassium lactate to make candy, sports drinks: study

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CHICAGO , January 27, 2023 (press release) –

Wind power is an increasingly popular form of renewable energy. However, when it’s time to replace the huge turbine blades that convert wind into electricity, disposal is a problem. Now, scientists report a new composite resin suitable for making these behemoths that could later be recycled into new turbine blades or a variety of other products, including countertops, car taillights, diapers and even gummy bears.

The researchers will present their results today at the fall meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS). ACS Fall 2022 is a hybrid meeting being held virtually and in-person Aug. 21–25, with on-demand access available Aug. 26–Sept. 9. The meeting features nearly 11,000 presentations on a wide range of science topics.

“The beauty of our resin system is that at the end of its use cycle, we can dissolve it, and that releases it from whatever matrix it’s in so that it can be used over and over again in an infinite loop,” says John Dorgan, Ph.D., who is presenting the work at the meeting. “That’s the goal of the circular economy.”

Made of fiberglass, wind turbine blades can be half a football field in length. Although some companies have found ways to recycle fiberglass into lower-value materials, most discarded blades end up in landfills. And the disposal problem is likely to get worse. “Larger wind turbine blades are more efficient, so companies keep making bigger and bigger ones,” Dorgan says. “Often, wind farms will actually replace the turbine blades before the end of service life because the farms can generate more electricity with bigger blades.”

Dorgan and colleagues at Michigan State University made a new turbine material by combining glass fibers with a plant-derived polymer and a synthetic one. Panels made of this thermoplastic resin were strong and durable enough to be used in turbines or automobiles. The researchers dissolved the panels in fresh monomer and physically removed the glass fibers, allowing them to recast the material into new products of the same type. Importantly, the recast panels had the same physical properties as their predecessors.

In addition to new wind turbine blades, the novel resin could be used for a variety of other applications. By mixing the resin with different minerals, the team produced cultured stone that could be transformed into household objects, such as countertops and sinks. “We’ve recently made a bathroom sink with the cultured stone, so we know it works,” says Dorgan. The researchers could also crush the recovered material and mix it with other plastic resins for injection molding, which is used to make items like laptop covers and power tools.

The material could even be upcycled into higher-value products. Digesting the thermoplastic resin in an alkaline solution released poly(methyl methacrylate) (PMMA), a common acrylic material for windows, car taillights and many other items. Raising the temperature of the digestion converted PMMA into poly(methacrylic acid), a super-absorbent polymer that is used in diapers. The alkaline digestion also produced potassium lactate, which can be purified and made into candy and sports drinks. “We recovered food-grade potassium lactate and used it to make gummy bear candies, which I ate,” Dorgan says.

Now that the researchers have demonstrated that the resin has suitable physical properties for wind turbines, they hope to make some moderately sized blades for field testing. “The current limitation is that there’s not enough of the bioplastic that we’re using to satisfy this market, so there needs to be considerable production volume brought online if we’re going to actually start making wind turbines out of these materials,” Dorgan notes.

And is there a “yuck factor” involved in eating candy that was once part of a wind turbine? Dorgan doesn’t think so. “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 says. “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.”

The researchers acknowledge funding from the David L. and Denise M. Lamp Endowment.

A recorded media briefing on this topic will be posted Tuesday, Aug. 23, by 10 a.m. Eastern time at www.acs.org/acsfall2022briefings.

ACS Fall 2022 will be a vaccination-required and mask-recommended event for all attendees, exhibitors, vendors and ACS staff who plan to participate in-person in Chicago. For detailed information about the requirement and all ACS safety measures, please visit the ACS website.

The American Chemical Society (ACS) is a nonprofit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress. ACS’ mission is to advance the broader chemistry enterprise and its practitioners for the benefit of Earth and all its people. The Society is a global leader in promoting excellence in science education and providing access to chemistry-related information and research through its multiple research solutions, peer-reviewed journals, scientific conferences, eBooks and weekly news periodical Chemical & Engineering News. ACS journals are among the most cited, most trusted and most read within the scientific literature; however, ACS itself does not conduct chemical research. As a leader in scientific information solutions, its CAS division partners with global innovators to accelerate breakthroughs by curating, connecting and analyzing the world’s scientific knowledge. ACS’ main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

To automatically receive press releases from the American Chemical Society, contact newsroom@acs.org.

Note to journalists: Please report that this research was presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society.

Media Contacts

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Katie Cottingham
American Chemical Society
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Office: 301-775-8455

Title
Composite resins for the circular economy: From wind turbines to gummy bear candy and beyond

Abstract
Human beings are intrinsic to the global carbon cycle so economic circularity will require unbiased interconversion of carbon between materials, fuels, and food. In this work, a recyclable polymer resin suitable for composites manufacturing that can be partially converted into an edible food ingredient is demonstrated.

Present generation plastics and composites have concerning sustainability metrics including high embedded energy and associated greenhouse gas emissions, low recyclability rates, and generation of microplastics pollution. Long fiber composite materials are notoriously difficult to recycle but are critical for wind turbine, lightweight vehicle, and other sustainable technologies. An economically viable, fully recyclable, composite resin consisting of biobased polylactide (PLA) dissolved in methyl methacrylate (MMA) is demonstrated. Physical properties of thermoplastic composites produced from the reclaimed resin show true “turbine-to-turbine” recycling is possible. Various end-of-use options are established; regrinding of thermoplastic composites produces short fiber moldable materials. Base catalyzed digestion of either thermoplastic or thermosetting resins produces poly(methyl methacrylate) or the superabsorbent poly(methacrylic acid). Distillation of the digestate produces methanol, water, and food grade potassium lactate; the resulting lactate has been incorporated into gummy bear candies and consumed by the presenting author. Judicious formulation of polymer resins enables complete circularity in low-embedded energy materials; exploitation of triggerable degradation provides varied and intriguing end-of-use recycling options.

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