How are solar panels recycled?

Solar energy is currently the most popular and the most abundant form of energy available on our planet and solar panels are currently being installed at many rooftops all across the globe. Solar panels have an expected lifespan of 20+ years, which means that solar panels which have been installed in the early 1990s are just about to reach the end of its usefulness.

We all know using solar energy is environmentally friendly but some of materials which are being used in solar panel manufacturing are anything but good for our environment. There are several potentially harmful materials such as silicon, cadmium, selenium and sulfur hexafluoride (a potent greenhouse gas), all of which can cause major environmental damage, so it is really no wonder that recently there has been plenty of talk about solar panel recycling..

Many researchers all over the world dream about discovering solar panels which would be made of only environmentally friendly materials but so far very few of these researches have been looking somewhat promising. Therefore, the recycling of solar panels looks like the only available alternative to prevent untreated waste piles of old solar panels.

Silicon is the main material used in manufacturing solar panels and plays the role of a semiconductor that facilitates the absorption and conversion of sunlight into electricity. Silicon is also the most valuable component of each solar panel, and so the most important thing about solar panel recycling is to recycle this old silicon in order to use it in new solar panels.

The process which allows recycling of silicon in old solar panels is called wet-chemical treatment process. Wet-chemical treatment process is a rather complex process in which silicon wafers are wetted and etched free of dust and soiling agents. The only downside with this method is that each solar panel manufacturer uses their own techniques to produce silicon wafers and therefore each manufacturer is only able to recycle their own solar panels.

Mass solar cell recycling plants are still not available because there aren’t that many solar panels that need to be recycled, but this will likely change in years to come. Many people interested in buying solar panels have started looking for companies that have takeback programs in place, and the number of solar companies that are doing their own recycling is constantly increasing. Some companies (SolarWorld) have been doing their own recycling for a decade.

Many solar companies still complain that solar panel recycling represents an additional expense to companies rather than the desired source of profit. This is somewhat true but many energy experts expect that once recycling goes to a larger scale, total costs will go down, and solar companies will be actually making profit out of this.

Also, solar panel manufactures could make recycling less complicated by giving more attention to design phase, and make sure to create a simpler design that wouldn’t make recycling easier.

Silicon isn’t the only recyclable material used in solar panels. There are also several other recyclable components of solar panels such as glass, plastic, aluminum, and other metals.