Research & Reports

UNSW examines barriers and opportunities in recycling end-of-life PV

Research by the University of New South Wales (UNSW) is examining the economic barriers, technologies and opportunities of recycling end-of-life solar PV modules.

The research aims to assist in the development upcycling end-of-life PV waste for profit.

According to PV Magazine, in April this year, four researchers from UNSW – led by PhD student Rong Deng – published an assessment of the approaches developed to date, the economic barriers to their implementation and the potential for material recovery and profit for a PV-upcycling industry.

Data from the International Technology Roadmap for Photovoltaic (ITRP) states that by 2050, the world will have an estimated 4,500 gigawatts of solar installed. Currently, only early adopters of PV – such as China, the EU, Japan, the US and South Korea – have variously comprehensive national programs for dealing with PV waste.

CheeMun Chong, co-author of the UNSW study, titled A techno-economic review of silicon photovoltaic module recycling, and professor at UNSW’s School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering, said that a lot of countries are now starting to catch on to module recycling.

“There’s a lot of research work happening, driven by some overseas government requiring manufacturers to take responsibility for stewardship of the modules over their 15-30-year lifecycle, and pay a deposit on each panel sold to cover their potential default,” Chong said.

“As a result, the past 10 years have seen more than 100 patents registered on recycling technologies.”

The report states that to date, Australia has no plan in place to encourage manufacturer responsibility, collects no levy against their default, and only Victoria is set to ban used solar panels, batteries and inverters, along with other electronic waste, from landfill.

It said that without regulation, sending end-of-life solar panels to landfill is the most economical way to dispose of them, but there’s a high-risk that toxic elements – such as lead, cadmium and telluride – used in many panels will leach into soil and groundwater. Materials such as glass, aluminium, silver, copper and silicon could also be reused if they could be economically recovered.

Macquarie University researchers have recently predicted that the economic value of the materials that can be recovered from solar PV panels in Australia – projected to reach 800,000 tonnes by 2047 – to be around US$1.25 billion ($1.78 billion).

“Globally, if we could recycle all the materials from the 78 million tonnes of end-of-life panels generated by 2050. We’re talking US$15 billion ($21 billion) in material recovery alone,” Chong said.

“That’s not taking into consideration the jobs generated by such a major recycling industry, or the environmental benefits of keeping the recovered materials out of landfill and in the circular economy.

“Putting costs aside, all the materials we’d get back from 80 million tonnes of waste would translate to two billion new solar panels, or in today’s technology, 630 gigawatts of generation.”

The work of the UNSW team involved calculations of more than 100 variables and compared the costs and material recovery values of four kinds of methods of dealing with end-of-life solar panels – landfill, glass recycling, mechanical recycling and thermal recycling.

Conditions identified for improving the viability of recycling include:

  • Regulations that discourage landfill as an option;
  • Simplified and improved recycling processes focused on increasing rates of materials recovery, particularly of silver and intact silicon wafers;
  • Potential changes to module design that better facilitate recycling;
  • A co-ordinated approach by governments and recyclers to building the recycling network; and
  • Consideration by manufacturers of how to incorporate second-life materials into their production lines.

“The upshot of the study was that under certain circumstances, recycling solar panels can be profitable, which is very exciting,” Chong said.

“We’ve identified the barriers, identified the opportunity, and we’re collaborating with groups outside the University that are advanced in coming up with solutions to the technical aspects of recycling.”

Chong is currently seeking funding for a next phase of investigation and has begun discussions with Australia’s Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre. He hopes to accelerate the solutions and establish best-practice upcycling practices, which Australia can implement and export to global markets.