Main picture: Finnish Wind Power Association
Based in Orimattila, Finland, Conenor is set to solve the world's fibreglass waste problem. Thanks to the company’s innovative technology, non-recyclable fibreglass plastic waste can be transformed into new composite materials. IPR plays a key role in operations and licensing – "a zero can be added to the price when patents are in place", says Conenor CEO Markku Vilkki.
Summer and early autumn 2020 brought good news to Conenor. The patent officies of Europe, the United States and Canada granted patents for the company's latest recycling technology innovation. Conenor hopes this will be followed by a positive decision from the Chinese patent office, too.
With help from Kolster, this patented technology enables previously non-recyclable glass-fibre reinforced plastic waste (GFRP) to be used in the production of high-quality composite materials. The technology represents an important development not only for the future business of Conenor, but also from the perspective of solving the global plastic waste problem.
"Huge amounts of non-recyclable fibreglass plastic waste are generated by the wind industry alone. Even conservative estimates suggest that the volume of this waste will reach 43 million tonnes per year by 2050. The EU Commission is now calling for further increases in the proportion of wind power used in energy production, and current waste disposal methods, including landfill and incineration, do not represent a sustainable way of managing the waste problem in a world with increasingly stricter environmental standards. Conenor has the technology and know-how to refine such 'non-recyclable' plastic waste into high-quality composite materials for use in the construction industry, for example", says inventor and CEO of Conenor, Markku Vilkki.
Innovation solves a growing problem in the recycling of thermoset GFRP-plastics
Vilkki characterizes the environmental value of the invention and thus also the commercial value of the patents as extremely high. Conenor’s innovative technology solves a major global problem – how to effectively recycle fibre-reinforced thermoset plastics.
Plastics are categorised as thermoset (cured) and thermoplastics (non-cured) on the basis of whether they can be remolded or not.
Thermoplastics such as polyethylene and polypropylene are easy to recycle, melt, and remould into new products. In contrast, thermoset plastics, such as polyurethane, polyester, vinyl ester, epoxy, and phenolic plastics, are a big problem and are widely considered to be non-recyclable. Cross-linking is a process used in the manufacture of thermoset plastics to join molecular chains together. This makes the plastic non-remoldable. Different kinds of fibre reinforcements are used in the manufacture of thermoset plastics, such as glass, Kevlar or carbon fibre.
Conenor has developed a thermo-mechanical agglomeration method, otherwise known as granulation, in which thermoset plastic, such as fibreglass, is first crushed into pieces in size about a thumbnail and then refined with thermoplastics and other additives into a semi-molten state. Although the GFRP-pieces do not actually melt, they soften and their mechanical decomposition becomes easier when the process temperature exceeds the so-called glass transition temperature (Tg approx. 85 ͦC). Following this, the fibres link with the thermoplastics and mix into a homogenous material formulation. As a result, the once problematic GFRP-waste can be transformed into durable and high-quality plastic composite material, and thereafter manufactured into single- or multi-layer boards or profiles, by using conventional processing equipment such as extruder.
"The market is now waking up to the potential of recycling thermoset plastics, so it is extremely important that Conenor’s technology has both been proven to work in numerous pilots and has comprehensive IPR protection."
"There are big-size corporations around the world that are now interested in this technology, including, for example, General Electric, which owns wind turbines in the United States."
A lot fibreglass plastic waste is generated both from the decommissioning of old wind turbine blades and from the manufacture of new blades. This waste problem is also significant in, for example, the shipping, automotive, aircraft, pipeline, and oil drilling industries. Responsible companies are increasingly expected to be able to demonstrate that they also manage their own waste in a sustainable circular way.
"I am currently in discussions with European energy companies being the owners of large wind farms about the re-use of decommissioned turbine blades. These giants, which have annual turnover of tens of billions of euros, hope that Conenor's technology can be utilised in recycling their turbine blade waste on a global level."
Patent-rich history led to recycling innovation
Conenor’s 25-year history is rich with patents and innovations, the continuation of which is seen as the development of their new recycled composite technology. Since the very first inventions, Conenor's trusted IPR partner has been Kolster and European Patent Attorney Ossi Huhtanen.
"The professional expertise of the patent attorney especially came up when patenting our latest innovation. This was the first time in Conenor's history that we really had to 'fight' to get the patent granted."
"The patent attorney's experience and skilful argumentation were needed to get the patent claims through the official action stages at the patent offices in such a format that we finally obtained patents that are valuable to our business.”
The new composite recycling technology is based on Conenor's existing and extensively patented extrusion technology and the CONEX ® extruder, a device capable of making different plastic product structures using individually controlled conical rotors.
"Conenor was founded in 1995 as a joint venture between inventor Kari Kirjavainen and Uponor Group, with the purpose of further developing and commercialising the CONEX ® technology. This multilayer manufacturing technology can also be optimally utilised in the manufacture of new recycled composites."
Vilkki quaintly describes Conenor as a little hub of inventions, with inventor Kari Kirjavainen and Uponor's now deceased inventor Jyri Järvenkylä competing to see who could generate more patented inventions.
"The first step was to secure comprehensive IPR cover for the CONEX® technology. Conenor then also protected a lot of smaller inventions and product features. In 2001, Kirjavainen came up with his second major equipment and process invention, a dedicated plastic material-saving cellular film manufacturing technology, TRIAXCELL®. This technology was divested to give the company better resources to focus on the further development of plastics recycling technology.”
Recycled materials and circular economy innovations at the heart of the business
2001 was also a significant year for Conenor’s CEO, Markku Vilkki, who at that time represented the company’s other owner, Uponor.
"We had already developed over a dozen pilot CONEX ® extruders for the cable and piping industry as part of a major joint project with equipment manufacturer Maillefer Extrusion, Uponor, NK Cables and VTT, Technical Research Centre of Finland. We were at the threshold of the equipment starting to work on an industrial scale, and more investments were needed. It was at this stage that Uponor got new owners, too, and became interested in divesting its stake in the Conenor business. I became an entrepreneur at Conenor through a management buyout arrangement."
CEO of Conenor, inventor Markku Vilkki.
After the acquisition, the CEO also became an inventor. As his interest in composite technology from recycled materials grew, he started considering how to harness the CONEX ® extrusion technology to produce new kinds of composite materials.
"Back in 2001, there were not yet any wood-plastic composite products in Europe. In fact, there were only a few companies in the United States that manufactured wood-plastic composite decking boards. This inspired us to further develop the idea, and we started working on a CONEX ® extruder to make wood-plastic composites from recycled and waste materials. In 2005, this work lead to a kind of spin-off innovation."
Since then, Conenor has focused on recycled materials. In 2017, Vilkki came up with the most significant circular economy innovation of the company's recent history, whereby new composite materials can now be produced from fibreglass plastic waste.
"From a purely technological standpoint, the level of inventiveness can be characterised as low. But that is precisely why this technology is a simple and cost-effective solution for our customers. Therefore, the use value of the related patents is the highest ever in Conenor's patents.”
It is possible to develop a completely new industry around the innovation.
"The main point in the commercialisation of this new materials technology is that a huge volume of fibreglass plastic waste is generated annually worldwide, both from industrial production and end-of-life products, and this can now, for the first time ever, be utilised as reinforcements in circular thermoplastic composites. It is a completely new field as such. The greatest application possibilities are in the construction industry, where recycled composites can replace moisture-sensitive wood products in both outdoor and indoor use."
The extrusion method can be used to optimally produce various product structures in multi-layer form, whereby clean and better quality waste is utilised in the surface layer, and waste containing impurities and EoL waste that has been exposed to sunlight is used in the core layer.
"This is the subject of Conenor's next product patent, for which the patent application is already pending. We will offer this technology to selected end product manufacturers like extrusion companies."
Licensing as a business model – material development laboratory helps develop new business opportunities
With the utilisation of recycled materials becoming the company’s focus, Conenor established its own materials development laboratory in Orimattila, Finland, in 2013. The lab is home to three CONEX® lines designed for industrial offered services and pilot production, complemented by crusher and mixing equipment.
"We carry out outsourced product development, sampling, and material development using various recycled materials for our customers. Here, the business model is licensing both our technology and know-how. We help companies convert problematic waste into valuable circular raw materials and create new business opportunities from recycled composite materials and products."
The Orimattila R&D center has tested and developed material ‘recipes’ from a wide range of waste materials – from fibre, mineral, and plastic origin – for both domestic and foreign customers.
"Making a working material composition involves a lot of special expertise over the years, knowing just how much 'salt and pepper’ is needed and in what proportion, so that the waste can be converted into a secondary raw material from which it is possible to make a new product, a board or profile, a single- or multi-layer optimised product structure."
Among others, Conenor has worked with the UPM Group in the development of ProFi wood plastic composite and, most recently, Stora Enso in a three-year product development project that aimed to create new business from the company's wood, pulp and plastic waste through mechanical recycling. As a result, Stora Enso established a factory in Sweden, which is now one of the world's largest manufacturers of cellulose-plastic raw materials.
"The know-how on how they could achieve their goals and start of a new business was largely developed in collaboration with Conenor."
Patents play a significant role in Conenor's knowledge transfer and technology licensing.
“A well-functioning technology can always be sold as it is, but if there are patents, it is possible to add zero to the price. Large international customers and investors are also more willing to invest in technology with IPR protection."
“For Conenor, patents are also important from a marketing point of view, because without them, the licensing business would be like running with a dead leg."
From EU research projects to international licensing business
For the past fifteen years, Conenor has been an active member and an invited expert with its CONEX ® extrusion technology and recycled composite materials’ know-how in a total of four EU-funded research projects. These projects – IRCOW, OSIRYS, HISER and ECOBULK – have targeted improvements in the efficiency of the circular economies, material resource efficiency, and, in particular, the utilisation of wood and plastic waste materials in the construction industry.
The most recent and extensive four-year project, ECOBULK, which is still under way for one more year, is particularly important in terms of the commercialisation of Conenor's patented recycled composite technology.
“EU projects have expanded Conenor's technological know-how, brought us a global reputation and, above all, international networks that are useful for business,” Vilkki explains.
Conenor wants to encourage also other SMEs and corporations to join EU-funded research projects.
Vilkki wonders why Finnish companies are so passive in using EU funding and the European network of experts in their own product development.
"The EU is happy to support projects involving in particular SMEs. For Conenor, these projects have served as excellent technology development and dissemination platforms, and have enabled us to finance our own product development with total costs of around EUR 3.7 million. We’ve also been able to patent the technology with support from the EU. The EU projects serve as an R&D academy that covers 70% of your own expenses. On top of that, the other partners in the project work for you for free – a chance an innovative company should not miss!"
However, Vilkki advises the use of experts when drawing up EU funding applications. He knows what he is talking about, as he has acted himself as an evaluator of the EU’s Horizon 2020 project proposals.
Will the next circular economic breakthrough using Conenor technology come from China, Germany or perhaps Italy?
As part of its involvement in EU projects, Conenor's recycling composite technology has been applied in many pilot projects demonstrating the functionality of both wood plastic and fibreglass composites in construction materials. The composites made with Conenor's technology can be found, for example, as decking in a sports and recreation area in a Spanish prison, fire retardant panels in Estonian and Spanish apartment complexes, and as duckboards in the Evo hiking area in Finland.
"Now that we hold the ‘fibreglass recycling patents’ in Europe, Canada, and the United States, our goal is to achieve our first major breakthrough and business case. The ice has already been broken in Norway, where a project is underway in which the customer aims to start production using the Conenor technology."
Vilkki is also keenly looking forward to a patent being granted in China, as it is the world's largest constructor of wind power plants.
"We already have promising partners there, and China is also the world's largest equipment manufacturer of the equipment used in our recycling technology."
There is currently a lot of buzz around fibreglass waste in many areas, especially in the wind power industry. Turbine blade waste became a social media scandal in the United States when Bloomberg reported that nearly 900 turbine blades were lying in a Wyoming municipal landfill waiting to be buried: isn’t wind power green? In the United States alone, 8 000 turbine blades will end up in scrap in the next few years. In Europe, WindEurope calculates that this number will reach 14 000 blades by 2023. The amount of blade waste is increasing at an exponential rate.
According to Vilkki, the solution to the problem lies in the hands of the political decision-makers – when will they make the recycling of fibreglass plastic waste, such as wind turbine blades, mandatory and a condition for obtaining new construction permits?
In Germany, the Ministry of the Environment is concerned about the large number of wind turbines that will soon reach the end of their life cycle. Disposing of turbine blades in landfill is categorically prohibited in Germany. However, incineration is not without problems either, as the energy content of fibreglass is low and the method generates problematic fine glassy ash.
The question, then, is which company will be the first one to deal in large scale with this fibreglass plastic waste problem in a sustainable way?
"Denmark, for example, is building the largest recycling site in Europe, which will be processing fibreglass waste from the wind power and other industries. They have been in contact with Conenor since a year already and we are discussing how local companies acting at their site could take benefit of our technology. Negotiations are also well under way with a globally operating company in Italy."
With its innovation, Conenor is at the heart of the solution. Conenor's pilot composite products have also included GFRP-waste from the blades of windmills, which were dismantled from Finland's first wind farm in Korsnäs in the autumn of 2017.
"Our technology and expertise not only makes it possible to recycle fibreglass plastic waste, but to do so in a cost-effective affordable manner."
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