Recycling Solar Panels: How it Works and Why it’s Important

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Last Updated on November 1, 2023 by admin

Recycling Solar Panels: How it Works and Why it's Important

The solar energy trend is booming, and it is one of the top five renewable energy resources. The question that lay overhead is what happens to solar panels once they have completed their life span of 25-30 years. Although solar has a long lifespan ultimately their efficiency decreases with time. In such a situation, these panels’ proper disposal is necessary to avoid any environmental calamity. Due to the presence of toxic materials in solar panels production, recycling can be a bit difficult and quite an expensive task sometimes.

solar panel recycle

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Important Points To Remember:

  • Solar panel composition involves semiconductors like silicon and germanium.
  • According to International Renewable Energy Agency, solar panels waste is likely to contribute at least 80 million tons of waste by the end of 2030.
  • The process of recycling solar panels involves steps like dealumination, cutter, delaminate, shredder, and sector turbine.
  • It is essential to choose a reputable solar panel recycling company for disposing of solar panels.
  • Recycling solar panels is a new opportunity to procure valuable raw materials and save the groundwater from leaching toxic material from landfills. 

What is in this Article:

What is the Composition of Solar Panels?

Solar panels composition involves semiconductors like silicon and germanium. On top of the silicon solar cells, thin strips of metals, usually silver, are aligned in a crisscross manner. These metal strips help in the transmission of electricity within solar PV cells.

The solar cells are further wrapped in transparent plastic known as ethylene Vinyl Acetate (EVA). This is further enclosed in another glass layer which is topped off by Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET). The whole structure is supported by an aluminum frame. 

What happens to the solar panels at their end-of-life period?

Solar PV module consists of semiconductors (silicon and Germanium), aluminum frames, junction boxes, glass, heat-sealed components, metals (copper and tin), and plastics. Once they complete their lifespan, dumping of theses panels happens in landfills. Landfills are large pits dug into the earth’s crust outside the urban areas. The landfill needs to be at least two meters above the groundwater table.

Conversely, the second way to dispose of solar panels is recycling. According to International Renewable Energy Agency, solar panels waste is likely to contribute at least 80 million tons of waste by the end of 2030. To stop this, it is better to recycle solar panels than to dispose of them in landfills. The first step in recycling is dealumination. This involves the removal of the aluminum frame and the junction box from the panel. Afterward, a cutter usage takes place to cut the panel into two parts. The panel insertion then takes place in the delaminator which separates the glass from the panel. Then it is sent to the shredder that shreds the panels into the size of almost 10 millimeters. With the help of the Sector turbine, all the heat-sealed solar panel components removal takes place.

In the final step, three-stage vibrating screen usage takes place. With the help of this screen, the metals, silicon, and plastic sorting into three separate bags take place.

how solar panels are recycled

What Parts of Solar Panels Are Recyclable?

Metals, glass, copper, and silver wires are completely recyclable. However, silicon cells, the main component of solar PV modules, are not quite recyclable. Some companies have the technology to reutilize silicon cells in their original form. While other companies still melt silicon cells and extract silicon out of the solar cells. Later on, the manufacturing of new solar panels using this silicon takes place. Thus, jacking up the price of solar recycling. 

To curtail the cost of solar recycling, scientists separate silicon cells from EVA using a dibasic ester. No harmful by-product formation takes place during this purpose. That is the main reason why this technique is gaining traction in the recycling solar panels industry. This proves that with the right technique, everything can be recyclable.

What is the Hindrance to the Recycling of Solar Panels?

Semiconductors, conductors, and insulators are the major elements in solar panel manufacturing. The recycling of these components is not difficult. It is the separation part where the problem lies. Separating these materials and disposing of them separately can be a bit challenging as well as an expensive process. An estimation by National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) shows that recycling panels may cost about $15 to $45 per module. Conversely, landfilling only costs about $1 to $5 per module. Recycling costs us about $14 extra per module. There is a lack of facilities for recycling solar panels. With this looming environment, most panels end up in landfills rather than recycling bins.

Are Solar Panels compatible with the Environment?

Solar panels are the source of utilizing the greatest gift of God, which is sunlight. Solar panels generate economical, emission-free, and perpetual electricity. The only stumbling block in this matter is that after 25-30 years, a downturn in the efficiency of solar panels can be seen. At that time, the only solution is to either replace or dispose of the solar panels. A recent report reveals that by 2050, almost 80 million metric tons of solar panels’ waste will be in landfills. Through landfills, due to seepage, chelates get to mix in with soil and groundwater tables and become the source of land and water pollution. 

Are Solar Panels toxic in Nature?

Crystalline silicon is the major element in solar manufacturing. This substance is non-toxic. The toxic materials usage that is of utmost importance in the solar panel’s formation usually includes lead and hexavalent chromium. But their minuscule quantity makes them nonlethal for human consumption. This quantity of toxic material is defined by California’s Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) law. According to this law, the limit of the hazardous substance should not exceed more than 0.1% in any human consumption product. While cadmium is an exception to this limit, it should not surpass 0.01% by weight.

In the same way, the extraction of silicon from the quartz results in the formation of silicon tetrachloride. When handled improperly, it may result in burning human flesh. The additional solar panel toxic material in Thin Film panels may include cadmium telluride and copper indium selenide. However, certain toxic chemicals are absolute in the panel manufacturing process, but the toxicity of these chemicals is subdued by the beneficial impact of solar panels on the environment.

What are the methods to recycle solar panels?

Solar panel recycling is not a new term but it is gaining mainstream traction due to the global climate crisis. People are not only moving towards sustainable energy sources but also finding ways to dispose of panels. Below are some of the ways to recycle solar energy panels:

1. Chemical Recycling:

This process separates the chemical components of a solar panel by using the technique of heating and chemical processes. Mechanical recycling of solar panels involves the separation of solar components based on their physical value. While in the chemical method, the separation takes place at molecular and sub-molecular levels. The by-product of the chemical process usually constitutes the emission of hazardous gases. This is the main reason why this method mostly takes a backseat in the recycling solar panels process. But still, some companies employ chemical processes to extract silver wire from the panels. The main purpose of this wire is the transmission of electricity from silicon cells to solar panels.

2. Mechanical Recycling:

Mechanical recycling is a method in which materials are physically broken down into their original components. It is an effective waste management technique that commonly takes place to recycle materials such as plastics, metals, and paper. Mechanical recycling involves sorting, shredding, and separating to convert waste into reusable materials.

Shredding is the subsequent step in mechanical recycling. It involves shredding materials to make them easier to handle and process. Depending on the recycling type, various sorts of shredders can be used. For plastics, for example, shredding takes place using granulators, which generate small plastic particles. By using these new products creation takes place.

After shredding, material separation takes place. Metals, for example, can be separation takes place using magnetic separation, whereas plastic separation takes place on a density basis. This separation process is critical for ensuring that recycled materials are of high quality and can be used to create new products.

Mechanical recycling is a viable option for long-term waste management. This is a much simpler and more cost-effective method than chemical recycling.

3. Reusing or refurbishing solar panels:

Reusing and recycling are two distinct categories. Recycling panels usually involves the breakdown of solar panels into small particles. After that, repurposing happens for construction materials or similar things. While reusing involve the usage of solar panels right the way they are, without any change in their original forms. Moreover, the average household electricity need is about 893kWh every month which may not be met by less-efficient solar panels. But still, there are multiple ways to utilize the less efficient solar panels. Such panels are perfect for small off-grid companies. For these companies, the requirement for the latest technology solar panels is not necessary. These panels can also be useful for small solar chargers like street lights or e-bike chargers.

What is the importance of solar panels recycling?

Recycling solar panels is a new opportunity to procure valuable raw materials and save the groundwater from leaching toxic material through landfills. It also generates the scope for solar jobs. The process is beneficial as it reduces the waste of landfills and reutilizes the raw material after recycling solar panels. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, about $450 million worth of raw material will be extracted from old panels globally at the end of 2030. This amount is equivalent to the cost of materials to manufacture at least 60 million new solar panels. So, to say the least, recycling solar panels is profitable not only for the planet but also for the economy.

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