Solar panels are driving the clean energy revolution, but recycling them isn’t easy

As soon as one truck leaves, another truck enters.

Almost every day, Anthony Fibond’s solar recycling plant in north Melbourne receives dozens of used solar panels.

In the car park, multiple leaning towers of devices, held together by tie-downs, occupy the spaces.

Right now, a lot of them are coming from schools where the state government is upgrading or replacing about 500 solar panel systems.

Others come from businesses, homes or solar farms from rural Victoria.

Hundreds of thousands of tons of solar panel waste is expected to reach Australia by 2030, according to the federal government.(ABC News: Rachel Clayton)

Some have big holes in the middle, some are broken, but most of them have no damage at all and have been pushed aside because they weren’t as effective as before.

All those used boards have to go somewhere, and they can’t be a landfill; Victoria, South Australia and the ACT have banned solar panels that end up in landfill – they must be taken to e-waste drop-off points for recycling.

It was a move to prevent heavy metals in the panels from seeping into the ground, and around 26,000 tonnes of solar panels are expected to be scrapped each year in Victoria from 2035 – to force the industry to innovate.

Solar panels are not made to be disassembled

John Polhill of Sustainability Victoria says it is a “unique experience” to be able to anticipate the flow of waste before it arrives.

But recycling solar panels is not easy.

“They’re sheets of paper, glued together, glued together,” Polhill says.

To be reused, solar panels must be disassembled so that each component — including glass, aluminum, copper, plastic, and silicon — can be separated. This requires a lot of heavy machinery to achieve.

Large stock of plastic wire stacked.
The plastic covering the wires from used solar panels is stored at Mr Vippond’s solar recycling plant in north Melbourne.(ABC News: Rachel Clayton)

Some of this material can then be sold and used in new products.

Several companies in Victoria and South Australia are experimenting with different methods of breaking down solar panels from the use of chemicals and heat to dry processes and computerized mechanical systems.

Each of them says his process is better than the one next door. But everyone admitted one thing: The margins aren’t great.

A new method for extracting nano-silicon

Most solar recyclers strip and sell the aluminum from the frame, try to extract as many of the precious metal as possible, and then store the rest.

For now, “it’s going to be cheaper to put it in a landfill than it is to take it back,” Polhill says.

Three glass containers with fragments of brightly colored materials inside.
To be reused, the solar panels must be disassembled so that each component can be separated(ABC News: Rachel Clayton)

“Over the past few years, companies have started to invest in restoring other materials, but this is in its infancy, and these materials have a very small market,” he says.

But, there is one part of solar panels that could change that: silicon nanoparticles.

Silicon is found within the black and gray panels that catch sunlight.

And when refined into its purest form, nano-silicon, it can sell for about $64,000 per kilogram. It’s a ubiquitous material used in everything from cell phones and concrete to rubber, plastics, and computer chips.

A person holds cut strips of solar panels.
Silicon is found inside the black and gray panels of solar panels that capture sunlight. When refined to its purest form, nano-silicon, it can sell for about $64,000 per kilogram.(ABC News: Rachel Clayton)

Until now, it has been difficult to reduce silicon into its nanoparticles without the use of harmful chemicals such as hydrochloric acid and nitric acid.

But researchers from Deakin University in Geelong say they have discovered a cheap, effective and environmentally safe way to do just that.

Researchers at the university began investigating their theory in 2019 and have repeatedly tested and revised the process to prove it can work and scale it up for commercial use.

“Compared to other processes around the world, my process is really environmentally friendly,” says Mukhlisur Rahman, chief researcher at Deakin.

Make solar panel recycling more profitable

Dr. Rahman says he has also discovered a way to combine nanoscale silicon with graphite to create long-lasting lithium-ion batteries for use in products such as electric cars.

It’s a breakthrough that could make solar panel recycling a more viable industry.

A man in a white lab suit stands in a science lab.
Most of the methods for turning silicon into nanoparticles are complex and time-consuming, says Mukhlis-ur-Rehman.(ABC News: Rachel Clayton)

Back at his recycling plant, Mr. Fibond has been trying to create new products like sleepers and furniture out of solar panel products, but he says the way to extract nano-silicon and sell it easily and cheaply will be a game-changer.

“Getting the best payback from solar panels is probably more important than any other product in this regard [environmentally conscious] category you come from,” he says.

“Some of the work they’re doing like Deakin University and some of their research is incredible.”

But Polhill is skeptical.

“How do we take this research and create a business model – that’s the real basis for unpacking this,” he says.

“Solar panel recycling in Australia is in its infancy. So it needs continued investment from both industry and government to support this growing market and some technologies as well.”

It will outperform all other e-waste

Chris Sayers has been involved in e-waste recycling for over a decade in Western Australia and started recycling solar panels in Victoria about a year ago.

He says the amount of solar panels entering the waste stream in the next decade “will be stratospheric”.

“It will outperform all other e-waste,” he says, “it’s a huge opportunity.”

Black powdery substance on a white surface with a jar in the background.
Nano silicon is used in everything from cell phones to concrete and rubber.(ABC News: Rachel Clayton)

He agrees that research like this being done at Deakin University has the potential to improve the industry by teaching recyclers how to extract materials with as little pollution as possible.

“if [materials] It can be extracted cleanly, disinfected and a solution to be recycled, ideally locally, then you can maximize your operations,” he says.

“It is very difficult now.”

Sayers says countries in Europe are “embarrassingly ahead” of Australia in space.

He’s one of many in the industry who’d like to see the federal government implement a product stewardship scheme so that manufacturers take on some of the economic burden of recycling boards.

Photovoltaic systems (solar panels) have been on the government’s priority list of product stewardships for about six years. A national scheme is scheduled to be up and running by June.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Climate Change, Energy, Environment and Water said the government is working with stakeholders to design a solar system waste scheme.

“The timing will of course depend on the organizational design work currently being carried out, which is important to get it right,” they say.

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