Researchers in Australia find a new reason to recycle solar panels – Money!

We recently reported on the efforts of Solar Cyclea California startup struggling recycle solar panels and do it profitably. Figuring this out becomes extremely important as the number of solar panels that are no longer productive increases dramatically over the coming decades.

In 2016, the International Renewable Energy Agency predicted that by the early 2030s, the global amount of decommissioned PV panels will equal approximately 4% of the number of installed panels. By 2050, the amount of waste from solar panels will rise to at least 5 million tons per year. China, the world’s largest solar energy producer, is expected to have retired a total of at least 13.5 million tons of panels by 2050 – the largest amount among major solar producing countries and almost twice as much as in the world. USA. time.

New recycling process for solar panels

The problem is how can you make money recycling solar panels because if there is no money to be made it becomes charity work and is not done on a large enough scale to matter. Researchers at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, have come up with a new idea. The most valuable part of old solar panels is the silicon used to manufacture the solar cells that do the work of converting sunlight into electricity. The other components – mainly glass and aluminum – have some market value, but not enough to make dismantling old panels profitable.

You might think the answer is to recycle and reuse that silicon, but that’s not as easy as it sounds. Dr. Mokhlesur Rahman is a principal investigator at the Deakin Institute of Frontier Materials. He says at a university press release“Solar panel cells are manufactured using high-quality silicon, but this material cannot be reused without purification, as it becomes highly contaminated over the 25 to 30 years of the panel’s life.”

Rahman and his team say they have developed a sustainable and highly lucrative way to address two major issues in the clean energy transition by recovering the most valuable component of discarded solar panels and reconfiguring it to build better batteries. In Australia alone, it is estimated that more than 100,000 tonnes of used solar panels will end up in Australia’s waste stream by 2035.

The researchers say they have successfully tested a new process that safely and effectively extracts silicon from old solar panels without the use of toxic chemicals. Then, that normal-sized purified silicon is reduced to nanoscale using a special ball-milling process. That nano-sized silicon has a market value of $45,000 per kilogram – much more than regular silicon which has a market price of about $650 per kilogram.

Use for nano silicon

But what is that nano-silicon good for? One possible application is making anodes for silicon batteries. In laboratory experiments, silicon anodes have been shown to increase the capacity of lithium batteries to store energy by a factor of ten. “We are using that nano-silicon to develop low-cost battery materials that will help deliver the higher-performing, longer-lasting, affordable battery technology that is critical to driving Australia’s clean energy transition,” said Dr. Rahman.

He adds that in order to tackle the huge problem of solar panel waste and develop a successful recycling program to divert it from landfills, Australia and the rest of the world must find a way for scientists to extract the most valuable components of solar panels. harvest and reuse the panels. “We have developed a process that reduces silicon collected from spent cells to greater than 99 percent purity within a day, without the need for hazardous chemicals. This thermal and chemical process is much greener, cheaper and more efficient than any other technique currently on the market.”

Nano silicon can be used for other purposes besides battery anodes. It can be used in the development of nano-fertilizers, innovative new carbon capture methods and the on-demand generation of hydrogen gas. The research team estimates that their technique could yield recovered materials worth $15 billion, based on the 78 million tons of waste from solar panels expected to be produced worldwide by 2050.

The new process is the result of years of research by a team led by Deakin Professor Ying Chen, director of the ARC Research Hub for Safe and Reliable Energy, which is located at the Institute of Frontier Materials.

“This technology developed by Deakin – including purification, nano-silicon production and integration into new battery technology – is a major step forward in how we address the problem of solar panel waste,” said Professor Chen. “Silicon recovered from discarded solar panels could be a huge, sustainable source of nanosilicon to meet future demand for raw battery materials and power the homes, transportation and communities of the future.” The researchers are now talking to potential industrial partners about plans to scale up their process.

The takeaway meals

CleanTechnica readers are used to announcements that promise great things in the future. They also know that many of the breakthroughs that happen every day in laboratories around the world never make their way into commercial production. At the bottom of the Deakin University press release was this sentence: “For more information, email Dr Rahman at [email protected].” I wanted more information, so I sent Dr. Rahman a polite email with a few questions.

“[CleanTechnica] readers are an educated group and will want to know more about the practical side of this study, especially the commercial side of it. Can you tell me how expensive you expect a recycling facility to process commercial quantities of used solar panels to be? How big would a facility be needed? How much energy is required to complete the process? Do you get your raw material from a solar panel recycler or do you dismantle the solar panels yourself? Have you already formed alliances with industrial partners? I really appreciate your help and look forward to hearing from you. Any further information you would like to share with my readers is also welcome.”

That email was sent a few days ago. The Silence of Dr. Rahman was deafening. Nada. Nothing. Bupkes. I take that as a bad sign. When researchers have something good to say, they are usually happy that someone is showing interest in their work. I cannot tell you whether there is any reason to believe that this research is anything but a laboratory exercise, which is a pity.

Currently, solar panel recycling costs more than the recovered materials are worth. With the awesome power of profit waiting to be realized, that could change in an instant. I want this to be true, but right now, right now, I can’t say there’s meat on the bones of this research. When I get a response from Dr. Rahman, I will update this story accordingly.

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