A new study has proposed a low-cost method of recycling solar panels to help handle the growing volume of retired photovoltaic (PV) cells expected by the end of the decade.
A team from the University of New South Wales published a paper last week outlining a process for collecting and extracting valuable materials from solar arrays to see if it was technically, economically, and environmentally feasible.
How does solar panel recycling work?
The procedure entails collecting solar arrays, dismantling them, shredding the cells, and using an electrostatic separation to collect valuable materials such as silver and copper, reducing the panels to 2-3 percent of their initial weight.
After that, the reclaimed material would be shipped directly to a refinery for purification and processing.
Dr. Pablo Dias, the study’s lead author, stated that it demonstrated the feasibility of operating a low-volume facility capable of managing 1,000 tonnes of solar panels per year. This equates to about 50,000 panels per year or about 4,100 panels per month.
“This is something someone can pick up elsewhere, it doesn’t use any chemicals, it doesn’t emit any pollution or hazardous pollution. It produces dust from crushing the panels, but you have dust collectors there,” Dias said.
The challenge of widespread solar panel use
At the moment, Australia has insufficient capacity to process and recycle solar panels that have reached the end of their useful life. This is an increasingly significant challenge, as the widespread adoption of rooftop solar and proposals for large-scale solar farms mean that an increasing number of panels will reach the end of their useful life.
By 2030, Australia was expected to generate 145,000 tonnes of PV solar waste per year, with the United States producing 1 million tonnes and China producing 1.5 million tonnes.
Smaller-scale facilities, according to Dias, have an added advantage because they can process material closer to its source before sending it on, reducing emissions from transportation.
“You could do this in a suburb in South Australia, concentrate the valuable material and then send it directly to the refiners who do extracting and purifying the metals,” he said.
Dias has already begun putting his research into practice through a start-up company, Solarcycle, which is constructing a facility in Texas. It is scheduled to go live in November.
Prof Peter Majewski of the University of South Australia‘s Future Industries Institute, who was not involved in the research, said it made “absolute sense” but cautioned against a one-size-fits-all approach.
For the time being, it is important to consider all possible outcomes; “we need to develop various ways of recycling.”
Majewski stated that while there was a need to consider how to process end-of-life solar panels, it was a “solvable problem” that could be remedied with a stewardship scheme that defines rules for disposal and specifies who is in charge of that task.
“With solar panels and wind, waste is often highlighted as this problem in a way it’s not with other discussions,” Majewski said. As he points out, a great deal of trash is being generated by modern technologies, but these issues are manageable. As Majewski puts it: “It’s a question of legislation and technology.”
Source study: Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews— “High yield, low cost, environmentally friendly process to recycle silicon solar panels: Technical, economic and environmental feasibility assessment”