The energy industry has been undergoing significant transformations, including a clear shift toward clean energy sources. However, not anything that seems to be viable does so at the end of the life cycle. That is, at least, the most general concern about photovoltaic (PV) solar panels. They are a renewable energy source solely reliant on solar rays and can supply electricity to our households. But what happens if solar panels do not function effectively?
Solar Panels’ Lifespan
How long will your solar panels really last? When it comes to making a decision on solar, most people have this issue in mind. On average high-end solar panels have a life expectancy of about 30 years before they have to be decommissioned. During this period, you will likely experience a 20% reduction in the power capacity of the photovoltaic panels due to degradation. Typically, the maximum decrease in productivity occurs between the tenth and twelfth years and between the twentieth and twenty-fifth years.
Solar Panels Disposal
PV panel waste is now classified as general waste by the regulatory authorities. To ensure that solar panels do not become an environmental burden, solar panel manufacturers must comply with strict regulatory and recycling requirements by law. That is when solar panel recycling technology began to emerge.
Waste from Solar Panels
If recycling processes were not put into operation last decade, by 2050, 60 million tons of PV materials would become a source of unusable waste because all the PV cells contain certain radioactive compounds that require special processing to make reusable. Complete solar recycling is a process that will take time to become broadly adopted, and it will need further testing to achieve its maximum potential of adequately recycling all solar panel components. As a result, close collaboration between design and recycling units is required to ensure that thoughtful eco-designs maintain the opportunity to recycle.
Processes for Recycling Solar Panels
Solar panels are categorized into two groups, each with its own recycling strategy. Both types—silicon-based and thin-film-based—can be recycled using other industrial technologies. While silicon-based panels are currently more common, this does not rule out the possibility of great value in thin-film-based cell materials.
Currently, a higher level of research means that more silicon-based materials can be recovered and reused making them much better for the environment. However, further research into thin-film panels would likely reduce the level of unavoidable toxic waste.
Recycling of Silicon-Based Solar Panels
The recycling of silicon-based PV panels starts with disassembling the device to remove the aluminum and glass components. Almost all of the glass (95 percent) can be reused, while all external metal components are used to re-mold cell frames. The remaining materials are heated to 500°C in a thermal processing unit to facilitate the binding of the cell elements. The encapsulating plastic evaporates due to the excessive heat, leaving the silicon cells ready for further processing. Since the supporting technology ensures that no plastic is discarded, it is reused as a heat source for further thermal processing.
The green hardware is physically removed during the thermal treatment. Eighty percent of these can be easily reused, while the rest is processed further. Acid is used to etch away silicon particles known as wafers. Broken wafers are melted and reused to do new silicon modules, resulting in an 85 percent recycling rate of silicon content.
Recycling Thin-Film Based Solar Panels
Thin-film-based panels, on the other hand, are subjected to more extensive processing. The first move is to tear the papers. After that, a hammermill is used to ensure that no particles are more significant than 4-5mm; the size at which the lamination that holds the inside materials together breaks and can be replaced. The residual substance, unlike silicon-based PV panels, is made up of both solid and liquid material. To separate this, a spinning screw is used, which prevents the major parts from rotating within a tube as the liquid drips into a container.
To ensure purity, liquids go through a precipitation and dewatering phase. Metal processing is used to separate the various semiconductor materials in the resulting substance. The latter approach is dependent on the panel manufacturing processes used; however, on average, 95 percent of the semiconductor content is reused.
Solid matter is contaminated by interlayer compounds, which are smaller in mass and can be absorbed by a vibrating surface. After that, the content goes through a rinsing process. What is left is pure glass, with 90% of the glass components preserved for easy remanufacturing.
Solar Waste Management’s Future Benefits
Now that we know solar panels can be recycled, the question is whether there are any other economic benefits. A proper solar panel recycling system would need to be built to keep up with the large volumes of PV modules that will be discarded soon. Once it is in motion, we can see several positive developments and potential prospects in the economy.
If renewable energy costs continue to decline, an increasing number of households and businesses are opting to invest in solar power systems. As a result, there will be even more business prospects in the solar cell recycling market.