New research has proposed a cost-effective way to recycle solar panels to help manage a growing volume of retired photovoltaic (PV) cells expected by the end of the decade.
In a paper published by a team from the University of New South Wales last week, researchers described a process for collecting and extracting valuable materials from solar panels to see if it was technically, economically and environmentally feasible.
The process involves collecting the solar panels, stripping them of their aluminum frames, shredding the cells and using electrostatic separation to collect valuable materials including silver and copper, reducing the panels to 2-3 % of their original weight.
The recovered material would then be shipped directly to a refinery for purification and processing.
Dr. Pablo Dias, lead author of the study, said it was possible to run a low-volume installation capable of handling 1,000 tonnes of solar panels per year. This equates to roughly 50,000 panels per year, or about 4,100 panels per month.
“It’s something someone can recover somewhere else, it doesn’t use any chemicals, it doesn’t emit any pollution or dangerous pollution. It produces dust crushing the panels, but you have dust collectors there,” Dias said.
Currently, Australia has very little capacity to process and recycle solar panels when they reach the end of their lifespan. This is 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 will reach the end of their lifespan. life.
A 2016 report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) found that early, large-scale users of solar PV can expect the greatest waste volumes from older systems.
Australia is expected to generate 145,000 tonnes per year of solar PV waste by 2030, with the US expecting 1 million tonnes per year and China 1.5 million tonnes.
Dias said smaller-scale facilities are important because they can process materials closer to their source before sending them, reducing emissions from transportation.
“You can do it in a suburb in South Australia, concentrate the valuable material and then send it directly to refiners who extract and purify the metals,” he said.
He has since also decided to put the research into practice through a start-up, Solarcycle, which is building a facility in Texas in the United States. It should be operational in November.
Professor Peter Majewski, from the Future Industries Institute at the University of South Australia, who was not involved in the research, said it made “absolute sense” but cautioned against a one-size-fits-all approach.
“There is a need to develop a robust recycling technology and industry in this space, because we are just going to face a huge amount of solar panels,” Majewski said.
“It’s worth looking at all the different scenarios at the moment – we need to develop different ways to recycle.”
Majewski said while thinking about how to deal with end-of-life solar panels was needed, it was a “solvable problem” that could be solved with a stewardship program that clarified who was responsible. and the rules for getting rid of it.
“With solar panels and wind, trash is often highlighted as this issue in a way that other discussions aren’t,” Majewski said. “Many technologies produce waste. We can handle it. It is a question of legislation and technology.