Avoiding the Definition of Irony: When Wind Turbine Blades and Solar Panels End Up in Landfills

National Science Foundation award for common research in alternative biological-based materials

Richard Gross, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly), is deeply troubled by the fact that clean-energy technologies, meant to help preserve the planet, generally 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,” he explained. “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.”

To that end, 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 a minimum of 5 years.

In addition to the environmental benefits, as petroleum costs rise, there also may be economic advantages to using the biological-based polymers that Gross is developing. Because the new materials will be meticulously engineered, he expects their performance 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,” he said.

The NSF recently awarded Gross and his collaborators a Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE) grant for a program dubbed RENEW (Renewable Energy NaturE’s Way).

The PIRE awards focus on research projects that can be successful only with the collaboration of foreign partners and provide international research experiences for U.S. students and post-docs, 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 United Kingdom, University of MONS in Belgium, University of Bologna in Italy and Santa Catarina State University in Brazil. They include not just materials scientists but mechanical engineers, chemists and others. In addition to revolutionizing the clean-energy industry, their work may eventually have utility in additional fields like auto manufacturing.

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 bio-diesel from fuel-latent plastic. A company he founded, SyntheZyme, recently graduated from the New York City Accelerator for a Clean Economy (NYC ACRE), 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 (NYSERDA). SyntheZyme develops bio-based alternatives to petroleum-derived products for applications that include surfactants, antimicrobials, bio-pesticides, biobased plastics and more. SyntheZyme also is developing new enzyme catalysts to ‘green up’ chemical processes.


NYUpoly, press release, 2013-01-24.


Case Western Reserve University
National Science Foundation (USA)
New York University
Rochester Institute of Technology
Santa Catarina State University
University of Bologna
University of Mons
University of Pennsylvania
University of Sheffield


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