NREL studies recycling strategies for solar technology, need less material

In a new comprehensive literature review, researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) found that alternatives to recycling may have untapped potential to build an efficient circular economy for solar photovoltaic (PV) and battery technologies. These alternative strategies, such as reducing the use of virgin materials in manufacturing, reusing for new applications and extending the life of products, can open up new avenues for creating sustainable product life cycles. products.

This information comes after an analysis of more than 3,000 scientific publications exploring the life cycle of the most common PV and lithium-ion battery technologies, including starting materials, environmental impacts and end-of-life options. NREL researchers looked at 10 possible paths to a circular economy. The results highlight key insights, gaps and opportunities for researching and implementing a circular economy for PV and battery technologies, including strategies that are currently underutilized.

Demand for photovoltaic panels and lithium-ion batteries is expected to grow as the United States moves away from fossil fuels and deploys more clean energy. Creating a robust circular economy for these technologies could mitigate the demand for raw materials and reduce waste and environmental impacts. Circular economy strategies also have the potential to create clean energy jobs and address environmental justice concerns.

“If you can keep them longer as a functional product, that’s better than deconstructing it down to the elements that occur during recycling,” says Garvin Heath, Senior Environmental Scientist and Energy Analyst and Distinguished Staff Member of NREL research. The researchers note that the focus on recycling may overlook challenges and opportunities that research into other strategies might reveal. “And when a product reaches the end of its life, recycling is not the only option.”

The deconstruction process takes more energy and generates more associated greenhouse gas emissions to then be incorporated into another product than keeping the first product longer, Heath continues. Along with his NREL colleague, Dwarakanath Ravikumar, he is the lead author of the Air & Waste Management Association’s 52nd Annual Critical Review, titled A Critical Review of Circular Economy for Lithium-Ion Batteries and Photovoltaic Modules — Status, Challenges, and Opportunities, which appears in the June issue of the Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association. Their co-authors, also from NREL, are Brianna Hansen and Elaine Kupets.

“People often sum up the life cycle of a product as ‘take, make, waste’,” adds Heath. “Recycling has received a lot of attention because it deals with the waste part, but there are also ways to support a circular economy in the making part and the making part.”

Recycling to recover materials used in technologies is preferable to disposing of them in a landfill, says Heath. He thinks the industry should focus on original product design that already uses fewer materials, especially less hazardous ones.

The authors also note that challenges remain in developing methods for recycling PV and batteries. There is currently no integrated recycling process capable of recovering all materials for either technology and existing research has focused more on laboratory scale methods.

NREL is already leading efforts to improve PV reliability, extend PV life, reduce the use of hazardous materials, and decrease raw material demand. This includes leading the Consortium on Sustainable Module Materials (DuraMAT), which is researching ways to extend the useful life of photovoltaic modules, and the Consortium for Bio-Optimized Technologies to keep thermoplastics out of landfills and environment (BOTTLE), which develops ways to improve the recycling of plastics.

NREL is also a partner in the ReCell Consortium led by Argonne National Laboratory, which works with industry, universities and national laboratories to advance recycling technologies throughout the battery life cycle for the chemistries of current and future batteries.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Advanced Manufacturing and Office of Solar Energy Technologies funded the research.

Image: Andreas Gücklhorn on Unsplash

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