Recycling Leads to Innovation and New Jobs

Re-posted with permission from the WSU Economic Development Blog

Global Fiberglass Solutions, Inc. is helping industries reduce their environmental impact and growing jobs in the Northwest and beyond. For the past three years, Washington State University researchers have helped advance both missions.

 Reducing waste and improving profits

GFSI is addressing large-scale industry waste of high-end materials such as fiberglass and carbon fiber. Both products are used in major industries including aerospace and wind turbine manufacturing. The materials are increasing in popularity due to their lightweight strength and low manufacturing cost, but disposing of the materials poses an environmental challenge.

“Fiberglass is a high quality material that takes a lot of energy to make, and does not break down naturally,” said Karl Englund, a WSU materials science researcher and Extension faculty at WSU who has worked with GFSI for the past two years.

The founders of Global Fiberglass – Don Lilly and Ken Weyant – set out to address that challenge in 2009 by turning recycled fiberglass into railroad ties. They found willing clients in wind turbine manufacturers, and found a way to cut down the massive blades to make hauling away easier and more cost-effective. GFSI also provided the manufacturers with a certificate of decommissioning, and became an EPA WasteWise Endorser, to help the companies promote their responsible waste practices.

From wind blades and railroad ties, GFSI expanded its feedstock to include boats and industrial scraps, and products to include man hole covers, bricks and other materials. By working with GFSI, companies like GE, which manufactures wind turbine blades, can buy back the products made from the recycled material to sell again – both decreasing waste going to the landfill and increasing revenue opportunities for the company. 

WSU helps with R&D, state supports partnership

Lily first connected with WSU two years ago through a research project funded by the Joint Center for Aerospace Technology Innovation (JCATI). GFSI wanted to expand into carbon fiber recycling, and was exploring ways to break the material down without losing some of its key characteristics.

“We looked at WSU as our R&D arm,” Lilly said.

JCATI offered funding for a joint project with WSU researcher Jinwen Zhang and his team. They developed a chemical recycling method that breaks down the carbon fiber in a more environmentally-friendly way, while also preserving important material characteristics.

In addition to exploring carbon fiber as a feedstock, Lilly wanted to make construction materials from their recycled fiberglass product. Thanks to an introduction from Zhang, Lilly started working with Englund to develop composite panels and reinforced plastic pellets, which can be used as a feedstock for the plastic industry. Both Englund and Zhang are part of WSU’s Composite Materials Engineering Center (CMEC), which has long worked with companies to figure out the best process for breaking down materials, developing and testing products from the recycled materials, and scoping possible supply chains for manufacturing.

“Most people are interested in creating new materials that take a lot of energy,” Englund said. “I’m on the other end, asking how we can get as much value as possible before throwing a material out.”

Working with GFSI, Englund has tested different options for grinding down the wind blades into the most useful material, and tested performance of the composite panels.

New manufacturing jobs for Washington, Iowa, Texas

Now that GFSI has proven that composites made from recycled fiberglass are reliable, the company is looking to develop manufacturing plants in Washington, Iowa and Texas. While the company currently employs around 25, these plants will mean a significant increase in new manufacturing jobs in rural communities.