Fully recyclable solar panels on the horizon
In cooperation with
Endurance Solar, Mat-Tech, Exasun, ABN AMRO
Fully reusable solar modules will become available in the near future. This is good for reducing our carbon footprint, because solar panels are currently destroyed at the end of their service life. Together with 3 companies, we’ve developed a solar panel that lasts for 30 years, after which the components can begin a new life. This removes a major disadvantage of solar panels.
Recycling solar panels
The recycling of solar panels is increasingly a focus of attention. Research is concentrating on recovering materials that are economically valuable, such as metals, high-grade silicon, and glass. Improved recycling methods are urgently needed so that solar panels can be better reused. This is a major scientific and technical challenge. It requires a new solar panel design, enabling all components to be recovered easily.
Together with 3 Dutch companies, we’ve developed a solar panel technology. This technology enables ‘Design for Recycling’ (D4R), without affecting the panel’s lifetime. Solar panels currently go through the shredder at the end of their life. A D4R approach can replace shredding with sophisticated dismantling.
New encapsulation is the most important technology for this purpose. For encapsulation, adhesive foil is used, which is essential for embedding solar cells into a solar panel. The new technology provides an integrated trigger mechanism for material separation at the end of the service life. It functions with low energy use and is non-toxic. This enables the materials to be recovered in a non-destructive way and free from encapsulation foil residues.
Demonstration of encapsulation technology
The Top Consortium for Knowledge and Innovation is carrying out the DEREC project, which stands for Design for Recycling & Reuse. This project demonstrated a proof of principle for simple dismantling on functional small-scale test panels consisting of 4 solar cells. The test panels were subjected to extensive fatigue tests, simulating a 30-year outdoor lifespan. At the end, the trigger mechanism of the encapsulation film was successfully activated, uncovering the solar cells. A follow-up project has been granted on the strength of the promising results. In the PARSEC project, the technology will be scaled up to full-size D4R panels.
Production of recyclable solar panels
The aim of the new PARSEC project is to ensure industrial production and integration into standard production processes for full-size solar panels. The manufacture of the materials and the circular solar panels must be scaled up. Only then can production be carried out at competitive costs in order to create a significant market share. Partners in the PARSEC project are Endurance Solar, Mat-Tech, Exasun, and TNO. ABN AMRO provides the outdoor test site at the CIRCL building in Amsterdam (see image).
Looking to the future
In the long term, the recyclable D4R solar panels can make an important contribution to optimum recycling at end of life. But what about solar panels that are already in use? We’re also researching and developing recycling techniques for them. For both the solar cells and the glass material. The aim is to harvest high-quality silicon in a purity that enables reuse for solar cells and other silicon-based products, such as thermo-elements and car batteries. A novel technology makes it possible to process the recycled glass material into new solar panel material.
Destroying tonnes of solar panels
High value recycling supports circular production. It also provides a clear solution to end-of-life waste of solar panels. In the European Union alone, this amounts to around 4,000 tonnes of solar panels destroyed in an environmentally unfriendly way every year. In a recent report, the International Renewable Energy Agency estimated that globally at least 10 billions of solar panels with a total weigth of 60 million tonnes would be at the end of their lifespan by 2050. In addition, producing D4R panels closer to home has an environmental advantage due to shorter transport distances.
Solar energy: from renewable to sustainable
Manufacturing solar panels and systems still requires a lot of energy and materials, their CO2 footprint needs to be reduced, and high-value reuse of materials is still barely occurring. To achieve the climate targets, solar energy not only needs to be renewable, but entirely sustainable.