Solar Panel Recycling: Turning Time Bombs Into Opportunities!

- Jun 02, 2020-

Introduction: Australia certainly has shown interest in solar energy. Now, the average life of solar panels is about 20 years, so many installations from the early 2000s will reach the end of life. Will they eventually be landfilled or recycled? The cost of recycling is higher than that of landfills, and the value of recycled materials is less than the original materials, so there is limited interest in recycling. But given the existence of heavy metals such as lead and tin, if waste management is not good, we will enter another recycling crisis. However, if the global electric vehicle industry shows interest in recycled solar products, then a potential time bomb may bring opportunities.

If released into the environment, the presence of hazardous substances in the scrapped panel can cause serious pollution and health problems. In order to close the cycle in the energy cycle, the next task of the solar panel industry is to safely dispose of or recycle end-of-life products. However, in the waste management system, reuse or value-added recycling/reuse is considered preferable to recycling.

The main contributors to the total weight of typical crystalline silicon photovoltaic modules are glass (75%), followed by polymers (10%), aluminum (8%), silicon (5%), copper (1%) and small amounts of silver and tin , Lead and other metals and components. Lead and tin (if immersed in soil and groundwater can cause health and environmental problems), while copper, silver and silicon, if effectively recovered, will provide valuable opportunities. Therefore, the landfill option should be completely replaced by recycling to prevent environmental pollution and recycle valuable materials present in the panels.

However, recycling cannot currently be regarded as an economically advantageous option, so economic incentives are needed to accelerate this migration. Among the valuable materials in the panel, silicon is the best opportunity, because the proportion of silicon is much larger and has ultra-high purity (99.9999%). Solar-grade silicon can be recovered from photovoltaic waste for secondary use in solar panels, or re-used in value-added applications in 3b generation lithium-ion battery anodes.

The increasing number of electric vehicles has given the global recycling and waste management industry a unique opportunity for materials; and there may still be room for useful solar panels. Today's electric vehicle batteries have become an important part of the total cost of electric vehicles (depending on 33% to 57% of the car), and material production is the main source of energy costs for manufacturing batteries. The cost-cutting strategy relies heavily on material-level innovations, namely the procurement and processing of raw materials.

Although electric car fans will certainly welcome lower prices, it is the headlines that set a mileage record. In 2015, Elon Musk claimed that the silicon in the Model S battery increased the car's range by 6%. Since then, electric vehicle companies like Daimler and BMW have also been actively involved in research and development programs to synthesize battery-grade silicon for electric vehicles. The silicon recovered from solar panels may be exactly what they need.

Australia has been in a good position in the rapidly growing photovoltaic market, such as China, Japan, India and the United States. Now, more than 2.3 million rooftop solar systems are installed nationwide, and we are officially ranked first.

In Australia, the entire process is led by Victoria and is closely related to the photovoltaic industry. The purpose is to advise states, territories, and the federal government on preferred national management methods. Although the prospects of the plan are undoubtedly encouraging, it may be crucial to accelerate its development. In fact, the severity of the problem was recognized in 2015, when solar cell panels were considered to be the fastest growing e-waste stream in Victoria’s e-waste market flow and processing capacity analysis, without a dedicated recycling infrastructure.

According to the analysis of the Micro Lithium Battery Group, by 2035, more than 100,000 tons of solar panels will enter the Australian waste stream. Is this a crisis or an opportunity? If you are looking for solar panel recycling in Australia, there are many services. However, in most cases, aluminum frames and junction boxes can only recover less than 20% of waste by weight. The remaining 80%, including valuable silicon, is currently not provided for recycling in Australia, but research results indicate that this need not always be the case.