Plastics Help Deliver Renewable Energy

Girl in field with windmills in the background

Is your home powered by plastics? If it’s one of the millions of U.S. homes that uses energy from renewable sources, plastics could be playing a role in helping you reduce the environmental footprint of energy production.

Here are three contributions that plastics can make to renewable energy—now and in the future.

Wind Turbines

A wind turbine works a lot like a household fan but in reverse: instead of using electricity to produce wind, it uses wind to produce electricity. The wind spins the turbine blades around a rotor that turns a generator to create electricity. Lighter weight turbine blades typically can spin faster, so technicians have continuously experimented with innovative materials to lighten the blades.

That’s where plastics come in. Most wind turbine makers today use various lightweight plastic composites to create durable, aerodynamic blades. These materials continue to advance, resulting in tougher and lighter blades. Researchers even are looking at coating the turbines in a plastic designed to mimic owl feathers, which might allow wind turbine speed—and megawatt output—to increase without extra, unwelcome noise.

Solar Cells

Solar cells have been used for decades to generate renewable energy, but plastics generally have played a secondary role. For example, solar panels often use various plastics to protect or connect some of the panels’ parts.

Some researchers suggest the future may belong to plastic-based solar cells. Researchers have been developing a new generation of solar cells in which plastics not only can protect the technology but also can serve as the photovoltaic material itself. While there have been many advances over the past few years, fairly recent discoveries may lead to significant improvements in this technology. For example, researchers have found that they can manipulate the molecules in certain plastics to create ordered pathways—or “nanowires”—along which electrical charges can travel more efficiently.

These types of advances could enable the versatility of plastics to open up new possibilities for solar technology. Plastics used in solar cells can be flexible, lightweight, and extremely thin, so plastic solar cells potentially could be printed onto walls, windows, and a variety of other surfaces—including curved ones.

Plus, plastic solar cells are expected to become comparatively less expensive, which could make renewable energy available to many more people, homes, and businesses.

Energy Recovery

We all know that recycling helps turn our everyday plastics into materials for making new products, which gives these valuable resources a second chance—but what happens to the plastics that aren’t recycled? More than ever before, they can become a source of energy.

Plastics are derived from materials found in nature that typically are used as sources of energy, such as natural gas, oil, coal, and plants. Today, some facilities in the U.S. recover the energy from waste—including the energy inherent in used plastics—to create electricity for communities. As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notes, “Converting non-recyclable waste materials into electricity and heat generates a renewable energy source and reduces carbon emissions …”

In addition, thanks to new technologies, some emerging companies can break down plastics at the molecular level and recapture these energy sources to use again in various fuels.

How does it work? After non-recycled plastics arrive at a plastics-to-fuel facility, they are heated in an oxygen-free environment, which causes them to melt into a liquid and then vaporize into gases, a process called “pyrolysis.” These gases are cooled and condensed into a wide variety of useful products, such as synthetic crude oil, synthetic diesel fuel, kerosene and more.

That means today’s used plastics could power tomorrow’s homes and cars—instead of ending up in a landfill.

To learn more about what’s new and cool in innovations in plastics, click here.