Recycling Solar Panels the Clean, Green Way

Recycling Solar Panels the Clean, Green Way

Inside a shipping container in an industrial area of Venice, the Italian startup 9-Tech is taking a crack at a looming global problem: how to responsibly recycle the 54 million to 160 million tonnes of solar modules that are expected to reach the end of their productive lives by 2050. Recovering the materials won’t be easy. Solar panels are built to withstand any environment on Earth for 20 to 30 years, and even after sitting in the sun for three decades, the hardware is difficult to dismantle. In fact, most recycling facilities trash the silicon, silver, and copper—the most valuable but least accessible materials in old solar panels—and recover only the aluminum frames and glass panes.

The startup 9-Tech operates its pilot plant out of a modified shipping container housed at the Green Propulsion Laboratory in the industrial port of Marghera in Venice.Luigi Avantaggiato

The need for recycling will only grow as the world increasingly deploys solar power. More than
1.2 terawatts of solar power has already been deployed globally. Solar panels are currently being distributed at a rate of more than 400 gigawatts per year, and the rate is expected to increase to a whopping 3 TW per year by 2030, according to a literature analysis by researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

In an attempt to stop a mountain of photovoltaic garbage from accumulating, researchers are pursuing better recycling methods.
The most advanced methods proposed so far can recover at least 90 percent of the copper, silver, silicon, glass, and aluminum in a crystalline silicon PV module. But these processes are expensive and often involve toxic chemicals. No recycling method has proven to be as cheap as landfilling, and very few operate on an industrial scale, says Garvin Heath, principal environmental engineer at NREL, who manages a group of international experts assigned by the International Energy Agency to analyze PV sustainability.

The founders of
9-Tech say they have a better way. Their process is a noisy one involving a combustion furnace, an ultrasound bath, and mechanical sorting, the vibrations of which shake the floor of the modest freight container where they have been testing their operation for nearly two years. The company uses no toxic chemicals, releases no pollutants into the environment, and recovers up to 90 percent of the materials in a solar panel, says Francesco Miserocchi, chief technology officer at 9-Tech.

Broken pieces of clear glass and blue silicon on a perforated metal trayBits of silicon and glass are separated from the rest of the panel.
Luigi Avantaggiato

How to Recycle Solar Panels

Workers wearing ventilation masks handle the inner layers of a PV panelAfter the frame, glass, and junction box are removed from a PV panel, the inner, bendable layers of silicon, polymers, and metal conductors remain. Workers cut the inner layers into large sections in preparation for the oven.Luigi Avantaggiato

The company tailors its process to crystalline silicon solar panels, which make up 97 percent of the global PV market. The panels typically

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The post “Recycling Solar Panels the Clean, Green Way” by Emily Waltz was published on 06/17/2024 by