Renewable energy technologies, which are generally accepted as clean and sustainable, are confronted with the irony that they often employ non-sustainable, petroleum-based materials.
‘The blades on a wind turbine, for example, are massive and need to be replaced about every 25 years,’ explains Richard Gross, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly). ‘They end up in landfills, like any other non-recyclable garbage. If they could be deconstructed by biological or chemical processes to recover chemicals that can be re-used, that would have an enormous positive impact on the environment. We could, in effect, 'green up' green energy.’
Thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation, Gross and his collaborators from seven other universities are exploring ways in which biological-based materials can be used in the manufacture of wind turbine blades, solar panels and other components for the clean energy industry. Materials development and deployment is expected to take a minimum of five years.
In addition to the environmental benefits, as petroleum costs rise, there also may be economic advantages to using biological-based polymers, Gross says, adding that because the new materials will be meticulously engineered, their performance is expected to be just as good – or even better – than those currently employed.
‘We believe that the precision by which nature designs molecules can be used to deliver better performance in both solar cells and wind turbine blades, where the organization of components is critical to device efficiency and material properties,’ Gross explains.
In addition to NYU-Poly, researchers hail from Case Western Reserve University, the University of Pennsylvania, the Rochester Institute of Technology, the University of Sheffield in the U.K., the University of MONS in Belgium, the University of Bologna in Italy, and Santa Catarina State University in Brazil. They include not just materials scientists, but also mechanical engineers, chemists and others.