Victoria: Researchers Found Way to Safely Recycle End-of-Life Solar Panels

victoria solar panel recyling

Victoria’s Deakin University researchers have successfully tested a new process to extract silicon from end-of-life solar panels

A sustainable method

The method will not only extract silicon from solar panel waste but also make it even better because the researchers have also found a way to reconfigure it into nano-silicon. 

Nano-silicon is used to make high-energy anodes for lithium-ion batteries. It’s important to note that there is a high demand for lithium-ion; unfortunately, it has met criticism due to its environmental impact to produce. This new discovery means that there is potentially a more sustainable way to produce lithium-ion batteries. 

Silicon is challenging to extract and reduce without the use of harmful chemicals. The researchers have created a thermal and chemical process to make the silicon extraction process safer for the environment. It will also be more cost-effective in the long run. 

This comes at the right time, as a significant number of homeowners and business owners are now taking advantage of solar energy. This has resulted in more rooftop solar panels installed, which calls for an effective and sustainable method to put a plan in place once the solar panels reach the end of their lifespan. 

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How it works

The silicon is purified and reduced to nanoscale via ball-milling without hazardous chemicals. After this, it is mixed with the graphite that produces a battery anode that is said to increase the capacity of lithium-ion batteries. 

According to Mokhlesur Rahman, a material scientist, “We are using that nano-silicon to develop low-cost battery materials that will help deliver the higher-performing, longer-lasting, affordable battery technology critically needed to drive Australia’s clean energy transition.” 

A significant breakthrough

Recycling solar panels is one of the challenges today, despite the growing adoption of renewable energy in the country. The new study brings hope that recycling solar panels will be more viable in an economic sense in the near future. 

This is also a significant step towards addressing solar problem waste. 

“Silicon recovered from end-of-life solar panels can be a massive, sustainable source of nano-silicon to meet future demand for raw battery materials. Helping to power the homes transport and communities of the future,” said Yang Chen, the director of the ARC Research Hub for Safe and Reliable Energy. 

By 2035, an expected over 100,000 tons of end-of-life solar panels will go into the country’s waste stream. In fact, a report in 2016 by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) showed large-scale and early adopters of PV solar could get the largest volumes of waste. 

It was also projected that the country will generate 145,000 tonnes a year of solar waste by 2030. 

If not addressed properly, it could lead to bigger problems for Australia. 

Not a first

This is not the first research that can help recycle end-of-life solar panels in the country. A team from the University of New South Wales in October 2022 published a study that involved gathering solar arrays, stripping them off from the aluminium frame, shredding the cells, and using electrostatic separation to gather the valuable materials. 

The valuable materials that can be extracted from the process are silver and copper, which can be purified and processed. Similar to the research of the team at Deakin University, the proposed process will not use toxic chemicals or create hazardous pollution. 

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