Team Re-Wind USA, a Tech-based research team, was declared one of the winners of the United States Department of Energy’s (DoE) Wind Turbine Materials Recycling Prize. The team — part of the multinational Re-Wind Network. which focuses on wind turbine blade reuse — received a cash prize of $75,000 alongside an invitation to compete in the next phase of the competition.
Re-Wind was one of 20 teams selected as winners of the “Initiate!” phase of the prize, introduced by the Biden-Harris administration in 2023 to meet the country’s decarbonization goals by 2050. These teams will then look to demonstrate their technologies at scale for the “Accelerate!” phase, in which six teams aim to win $500,000 and work with DoE labs.
The Technique spoke to Russell Gentry, ARCH professor and one of the founders of Re-Wind, as well as student members Sakshi Kakkad, Cayleigh Nicholson, Gabriel Ackall, Yulizza Henao-Barragan and Aeva Silverman.
Henao-Barragan, fifth-year graduate CE, spoke about the problem that the team addressed.
“Windmills have a design life — blades typically last about 25 years. In the US, a lot of wind farms started reaching end of life about five years ago. Blades are made of composite materials that are hard to recycle,” Henao-Barragan said. “Our team decided to repurpose blades, with minimal modification and create new infrastructure with them — bridges, poles, barriers and so on.”
The Re-Wind Network is a collaboration between universities in the US, Ireland and Northern Ireland. The consortium also includes BladeBridge, an Ireland-based company that constructed the first bridge using repurposed LM13 windmill blades. The network formed due to a unique grant partnership in 2016 from the National Science Foundation (NSF).
Silverman, fourth-year ENVE, works primarily on mapping software for infrastructure planning. She spoke about the way the team’s role in the initiative has evolved since she joined in 2021.
“When I joined, the team’s focus was more structural. Torsional and loading tests, ripping blades apart and determining material properties were our priorities. The most important research now is about how to make it happen. We need to design catalogs to showcase our ideas and manage future trends in repowering decision making processes — related to taxes and local politics,” Silverman said.
While the team liaises with academics, engineers and sociologists in Europe, a major part of the Re-Wind design and modeling was done at Tech. Kakkad, fourth-year CS, spoke about her focus on modeling and simulation and Re-Wind USA’s contributions in that regard.
“Re-Wind provides digital twin modeling. We have the 3D geometry of the blade and the numeric data — we use composite lay-up and calculate structural properties of the blade. It’s a little challenging because blade data is often proprietary. We sometimes have to recreate our data using point cloud scans and bits and pieces which we can get from companies that share data,” Kakkad said.
Re-Wind primarily works in the Digital Fabrication Lab (DFL), whose main component is a 13,000 square-foot high bay shop with various machines for cutting and fabrication. The team uses foam and wood to create templates for their designs, high-pressure water jets for cutting complex shapes and structural tools for testing different spots on the blade. At the time of the interview, a 50-ft blade part weighing about 7,000 lb was present in the lab’s premises for testing the supporting structures the team was developing.
“From a structural perspective, Tech faculty and connections of the Institute have given us advice. We have connections within GTRI [Georgia Tech Research Institute] too. And of course, we have the DFL — which is one of the main ways Tech helps us,” said Ackall, third-year CE, who focuses on structural engineering on the team.
The team is optimistic about beating their competitors to the prize. Kakkad said that Re-Wind’s vast suite of potential offerings beyond just the BladeBridge could set them apart, while Nicholson felt that reuse inspired a lot more use cases among consumers than recycling did. Ackall explained how in terms of carbon neutrality, Re-Wind had a significant edge.
“Some teams have plans to use the rare earth elements in wind turbines, others are recycling blades. The other options are energy intensive — cutting up a blade, grinding it up, burning all the resin out of the fiberglass — how much energy are you truly saving? Our most intensive process is cutting the blade using a saw. We also prevent the use of steel in building bridges. It’s a double edged sword — we prevent the blades from being incinerated, as well as more construction material from being generated,” Ackall said.
Prominent international organizations and media houses have covered Re-Wind’s unique proposition and proof of concept in Ireland — including the BBC, World Economic Forum, TIME Magazine and The Independent. Re-Wind has also published many papers at conferences. According to Kakkad, the prize is yet another accomplishment of the team that expands its network and brings it credibility — but there is a goal beyond the prize.
“We’re not just making prototypes for the competition — we want to prove viability from an economic standpoint. On the modeling side, we have our own proprietary software BladeMachine that has been developed over the past few years. We have looked at other solutions out there and thought of ways to export our product,” Kakkad said.
Ackall also suggested that Re-Wind’s construction proposals retain their own incentives purely in economic terms.
“Right now, there is a cost to dispose of wind turbines. By being able to reuse these blades, we are at a massive advantage because we are using material with a negative cost. Steel and concrete have a positive cost,” Ackall said.
The team spoke about goals they wished to fulfill through the project. Ackall focused on reducing the environmental impact of construction — which he said contributes to over a third of all global carbon emissions. Nicholson wished to oversee the completion of the BladeBridge in
Beaverbrook Park in Buckhead.
Henao-Barragan wanted Re-Wind and its philosophy to spread internationally and in other construction applications. Silverman envisioned a consulting opportunity, in which new projects or farms consult with Re-Wind about logistics work, permits, material transport routes and structural advice.
In keeping with many of the above goals, Gentry explained how the $75,000 prize money would be utilized.
“The award money is intended to support further demonstration of Re-Wind technologies and allow us to explore the potential for a startup venture. Although our technology is clearly able to upcycle the blade material, the structure and operations of a Re-Wind for profit or perhaps not for profit enterprise is not resolved. We intend to use the DoE award to support and grow our team as our NSF funds are coming to a close,” Gentry said.
While it has been a commendable journey for the team so far, the road ahead presents stiff challenges. Silverman highlighted the need to get funding to acquire turbine blades and fund student research. Ackall spoke about the need to reinterpret sometimes archaic construction codes and guidelines to
incorporate their new approach. Kakkad mentioned issues in transportation of whole blades and the overall lack of proprietary data about their specifications. Henao-Barragan claimed that her data proved that while transportation was feasible, the main barrier was the industry’s bias towards conventional approaches.
“Putting the blade in context is a challenge — how do people interact with the blade? That’s where it’s interesting from a design perspective — bringing simplicity into the geometrical complexity of a blade. If people understand how it works and like how it looks, they may put some money towards it,” said Nicholson, fourth-year ARE, articulating the design challenge.
Re-Wind USA is on the lookout for dedicated students to join the team and contribute to the development of their project. More information about the team’s work can be found at re-wind.info.