When Wind Turbine Blades and Solar Panels End Up in Landfills

Richard Gross, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NY-Poly), is deeply troubled that clean energy technologies meant to help preserve the planet employ nonsustainable, petroleum-based materials.

“The blades on a wind turbine, for example, are massive and need to be replaced about every 25 years,” Gross said. “They end up in landfills, like any other nonrecyclable garbage. If they could be deconstructed by biological or chemical processes to recover chemicals that can be reused, that would have an enormous positive impact on the environment. We could, in effect, green up green energy.”

The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded Gross and his collaborators from seven other universities a grant to explore ways in which biological-based materials can be used in the manufacture of turbine blades, solar panels and other components for the clean-energy industry. Materials development and deployment is expected to take at least five years.

In addition to the environmental benefits, as petroleum costs rise, there also might be economic advantages to using the biological-based polymers Gross is developing. Because the new materials will be meticulously engineered, he expects the performance to be equal or more efficient than those currently employed.

“We believe that the precision by which nature designs molecules can be used to deliver better performance in solar cells and wind turbine blades where the organization of components is critical to device efficiency and material properties,” Gross said.

The Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE) award focuses on research projects that can be successful only with the collaboration of foreign partners and provide international research experiences for U.S. students and postdocs, as well as provide models to help universities become more international.

In addition to NYU-Poly, researchers hail from Case Western Reserve University, University of Pennsylvania, Rochester Institute of Technology, University of Sheffield in the U.K., University of MONS in Belgium, University of Bologna in Italy and Santa Catarina State University in Brazil. They include materials scientists, mechanical engineers, chemists and others. This can revolutionize the clean energy industry.

Gross founded and directs the NSF Industrial/University Cooperative Research Center for Biocatalysis and Bioprocessing of Macromolecules at NYU-Poly. In 2003 he received the Presidential Green Chemistry award for his work on biocatalytic routes to polymers. Gross is widely recognized for his efforts to create biodiesel from fuel-latent plastic. A company he founded, SyntheZyme, recently graduated from the New York City Accelerator for a Clean Economy, the city’s premier clean-tech business incubator operated by NYU-Poly and seeded by a grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. SyntheZyme develops bio-based alternatives to petroleum-derived products for applications that include surfactants, antimicrobials, biopesticides, bio-based plastics and more. SyntheZyme also is developing new enzyme catalysts to green up chemical processes.  

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