The benefits of solar energy are staggering in comparison to the carbon-emitting, non-renewable energy sources that produce most of the global energy consumed. However, what happens to solar panels and the components they are made of at the end of their lifecycle? Typically, solar panels have a lifecycle of 30 years; in that time, they are minimizing carbon emissions. An emerging worry of the solar industry is the amount of waste that would fill landfills after solar panels are no longer efficient, especially if these systems are mass-adopted. This concern needs to be addressed to be a truly innovative product that reduces emissions and paves the way to a net-zero future.
Luckily, up to 96% of the material used to make solar modules can be reused to make new solar panels! Photovoltaics are primarily composed of glass, plastic, and aluminum, which are three materials that are recycled in mass quantities. At Mitrex, we are committed to seeing a genuinely sustainable future with photovoltaics integrated into any surface touched by the sun. We are committed to recycling our products to ensure that these systems do not negatively impact our environment.
Mitrex uses two types of solar technology: silicon and thin-film photovoltaics. These types can both be recycled through different industrial processes. Currently, silicon-based panels are more common, so the impact of recycling these panels is drastic, though the value of recycling thin-film based cells is also important as their use becomes more common.
The recycling process of silicon solar panels begins with disassembling the product to separate the aluminum and glass parts. 95% of the glass can be reused, and all the external metal parts are recycled. The remaining materials are treated using a thermal processing unit to separate the binding of the components of the cells. The high heat evaporates the encapsulating plastic, and the silicon cells are treated further. The plastic is also recycled by reusing it as a source of heat for further thermal processing. The solar module hardware is then physically separated, and 80% of this can be immediately reused while the rest can be further refined for reuse. Next, the silicon wafers are etched away using acid. The reduced wafers are melted to be reused for producing new silicon modules; 85% of the silicon is recycled through this process.
Thin-film solar panels go through more drastic processing methods. These panels are first shredded into small pieces to remove the lamination that keeps the materials together. Once the materials are no longer held together with lamination, the remaining materials are both solids and liquids that are separated with a rotating screw. Liquids are put through a precipitation and dewatering process to ensure purity and then through metal processing that separates the semiconductor materials. Typically, 95% of the semiconductor material is reused from these treatments. The solid materials go through a processing method that removes interlayer materials and then goes through rinsing. The remaining material is pure glass, conserving 90% of the glass elements for easy re-manufacturing.