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January 12, 2021

Today’s wind turbine blades could become tomorrow’s bridges

On December 16, three 40 foot-long wind turbine blades were delivered via truck from a wind farm in Belfast to the Cork Institute of Technology in southern Ireland. For the next few months, civil engineers will subject the blades to a battery of tests as they design and build a pedestrian bridge that uses pieces of them to replace traditional steel girders. By April, the bridge will be complete, and the Cork County Council will pick it up and install it on a bicycle route connecting the towns of Youghal and Middletown.

If this experimental bridge is a success, it could be the first of many. Angela Nagle, a civil engineering Ph.D. student at the University College Cork who is investigating environmental, economic, and policy issues surrounding blade bridges, hopes to see dozens of them dotting the Irish countryside in the not-so-distant future. With 11,000 tons of blades expected to be decommissioned across Ireland by 2025, there should be no shortage of material to work with.

“What I’d love to do is turn it into a blade waste brokerage business,” Nagle said.

Nagle’s blades-to-bridges dream is part of an emerging effort to find creative ways to deal with blade waste, a fast-growing part of the overall waste stream that poses unique challenges. Because wind turbine blades are very large and sturdy, Nagle and her colleagues at the Re-Wind project are hoping they can be repurposed for electrical transmission towers, bridges, and more. Meanwhile, General Electric recently announced it has begun turning decommissioned wind turbine blades into cement, while scientists at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory are cooking up new materials that could make the blades of the future far more recyclable than today’s state of the art.

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