LAWRENCE — Solar power is growing at an astonishing rate, providing almost 4% of the world’s electricity, according to the International Energy Agency. But as solar panels reach the end of their working lives, many end up in landfills.
University of Kansas scientists are poised to avert this looming waste crisis with help from a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office. In collaboration with the Idaho National Laboratory and First Solar Inc., researchers at KU’s Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis are developing a low-cost method to separate and reuse components from used solar panels for recycling.
“Our goal is to demonstrate a recycling technology that can be easily scaled up and is also green,” said Bala Subramaniam, Dan F. Servey Distinguished Professor of Chemical & Petroleum Engineering and director of the CEBC. “Efficient recycling of solar panels will be essential as the industry grows, to ensure the availability of critical materials, minimize waste and limit costs. Solving this problem now is essential to avoid the type and scale of pollution that we currently face with waste plastics. This project is an example of the forward-thinking research that the KU CEBC and its collaborators undertake to promote the sustainability of our planet.”
Solar panels are constructed from several layers of materials, including glass, adhesives, metals and semiconductors. Recovering rare and costly metals from end-of-life panels is expensive, slow, destructive and requires harsh chemical conditions. According to the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, less than 10% of the country’s decommissioned panels are recycled.
The research team will tackle this problem by developing a new technology to easily separate the layers, then use ozone to recover the valuable metals. They will design the process under laboratory conditions, then employ economic and environmental modeling to scale the solution for industry use.
The resulting process is expected to be faster, cleaner and more cost-effective — potentially solving an industrywide recycling challenge.
“First Solar has long been committed to sustainability, with a particular emphasis on recycling that dates back over 15 years, when we launched the industry’s first commercial recycling program. Partnerships with institutions such as the University of Kansas are invaluable as we continue to evolve our recycling technology to both scale recycling facilities and optimize recovery rates,” said Pat Buehler, chief product officer at First Solar, KU’s industry research partner on this grant.
KU was selected as a part of the SETO Fiscal Year 2022 Photovoltaics Research & Development (PVRD) funding program, an effort to reduce costs and supply chain vulnerabilities, further develop durable and recyclable solar technologies, and advance more environmentally friendly PV technologies toward commercialization.
The Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis is a multi-departmental research center focused on protecting the planet, promoting prosperity and enriching scholarship through diversity.
This project highlights KU’s strength in research focused on earth, energy & environment, which is one of the university’s five strategic research themes. Research in this area increases understanding of the various dimensions and impacts of climate change on human and natural systems, developing new technologies and mitigation strategies with an ultimate goal of sustaining the life of the planet and its inhabitants.
Top left photo: Team of two engineers installing solar panels on roof. Credit: iStock.com/ArtistGNDphotography
Top right photo: Hongda Zhu, postdoctoral scientist at KU’s Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis, prepares a laboratory reactor for processing material samples.