PV Panel recycling technologies


Solar power is booming, with millions of metric tons of solar panels being produced each year. A panel has a projected lifespan of about 25 years, which means that today’s new solar farms will go out of service in the late 2040s. Most of the weight in a solar panel, about 75 percent, is glass, aluminum, with 10 percent; wiring in a junction box, at 5 percent; and silicon, with just 3.5 percent.

Dedicated recyclers are needed, the authors write, to do a more thorough job of recycling all the components of a panel—including the crystalline silicon in the photovoltaic cells themselves. Silicon wafers account for about half the cost of a panel, as well as over half the energy and carbon footprint of manufacturing a panel. But silicon isn't currently being targeted for recycling much because the recovered silicon isn't pure enough to go straight back to a wafer manufacturer. Studies show that the impurity levels are an important issue during the recycling processes. The resulting cells have an efficiency of 19.7 percent, which refers to how well the cells can convert the energy from the sun into electricity. This is below the 22.2 percent efficiency of equivalent new cells on the market, but it’s better than the efficiency of the older solar cells that were recycled.

Recycling wafers would mean tuning the purifying process to a new material, accounting for the variety of other elements present in photovoltaic cells. Additionally, before the recycled silicon from solar cells can be used again, further chemical treatment is necessary, as well as for silver and aluminum. The chemical treatments have the potential of producing environmental impacts. Besides that, it is important to note that no process can recycle 100% of recovered materials from solar modules yet. Only Europe has recyclers focused purely on panels. 

It was shown that recycling technologies for PV wastes are extensively explored not just on labs and pilot plants, but some are also commercially available. It is also clear that a few challenges (e.g. economic feasibility, recovery of more materials, and recovery of unbroken cells), still remain in process efficiency, complexity, energy requirements and use of non-environmentally friendly materials for the treatment of some elements. The relatively small number of panels currently being disposed of, along with the limited value of recovered materials, means many don't yet see opportunity.


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