New research has proposed a cost-effective way to recycle solar panels to help manage the growing volume of retired photovoltaic (PV) cells expected by the end of the decade.
In a paper published last week by a team from the University of New South Wales, researchers determined whether the process of collecting and extracting valuable materials from solar arrays is technically, economically and environmentally feasible.
The process involves collecting the solar arrays, stripping their aluminum frame, breaking down the cells and reducing the panels to 2%-3% of their original weight using electrostatic separation to collect valuable materials including silver and copper.
The recovered material will be sent directly to the refinery for treatment and processing.
Dr Pablo Dias, lead author of the study, said it showed it was possible to operate a small-scale facility capable of handling 1,000 tons of solar panels per year. This equates to about 50,000 panels per year, or about 4,100 panels per month.
“It’s something that someone can pick up somewhere else, it doesn’t use any chemicals, it doesn’t emit any pollution or dangerous pollution. It creates dust by crushing the panels, but you have dust collectors in there,” Dias said.
Australia currently has very little capacity to process and recycle solar panels at the end of their useful lives. This is seen as an increasingly pressing issue as the high adoption of rooftop solar and proposals for large-scale solar farms mean that an increasing number of panels are reaching the end of their life.
A 2016 report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) found that large-scale and early adopters of solar PV can expect the largest volumes of waste from older systems.
Australia was predicted to produce 145,000 tonnes of PV solar waste per year by 2030, compared to 1 million tonnes per year in the US and 1.5 million tonnes in China.
Dias said small-scale facilities are important because they can process material closer to the source before shipping it, reducing emissions from transportation.
“You can do it in a South Australian suburb, concentrate the valuable material and then ship it directly to the refiners who extract and refine the metals,” he said.
He also moved to apply the research through startup Solarcycle, which is building a facility in the US state of Texas. It is expected to be launched in November.
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Professor Peter Majewski of the University of South Australia’s Future Industries Institute, who was not involved in the research, said it “absolutely makes sense” but cautioned against a one-size-fits-all approach.
“We need to develop a strong recycling technology and industry in this space because we’re going to have a lot of solar panels,” Majewski said.
“It’s worth looking at all the different scenarios at the moment – we need to develop different ways of recycling.”
Majewski said that while there is a need to think about how to dispose of end-of-life solar panels, it is a “solvable problem” that can be solved with a management scheme that clarifies who is responsible and how to dispose of them.
“Solar panels and wind emissions are often highlighted as this issue, which is not the case in other discussions,” Majewski said. “Many technologies produce waste. We can manage. It is a matter of legislation and technology.”