Research by a Melbourne-based team is the catalyst for a first-of-its-kind PV upcycling facility in the state, with plans to expand across Australia.
Households across the nation have embraced solar power in the search for more renewable energy. However, the uptake has created a looming waste management issue as solar photovoltaic (PV) modules reach their end-of-life.
PV module recycling and upcycling has become an emerging market, grabbing the attention of academia and industry, worldwide. The International Renewable Agency estimates the value of these materials to be about $21.5 billion by the year 2050.
In Australia, solar panel recycling company ElecSome is rolling out a first-of-its-kind PV upcycling facility in Victoria to transform solar panel waste into new products used in the construction and manufacturing industries.
In October 2022, Neeraj Das, ElecSome Managing Director, launched SolarCrete – the world’s first pre-mixed concrete made from glass fines sourced from solar panels to replace natural sand.
“This really puts Australia ahead of everyone else to find an environmentally friendly process for upcycling PV modules,” Neeraj says.
“Our technology is derived out of a set of patented processes that enable the efficient recovery and transformation of solar panel components into value-added products.
“It highlights how a circular economy may be realised based on the technical and commercial feasibility of solar panel upcycling.”
ElecSome is a start-up established to commercialise the outcomes of a collaborative research project by the University of Melbourne, RMIT University and Melbourne-based company OJAS, to maximise resource recovery and reclaim the valuable materials of PV modules such as clean glass, silicon cells and polymers.
The project originally got underway in 2020 with a $3 million Federal Government Cooperative Research Centre grant to OJAS.
Dr Ylias Sabri, a material scientist leading the team from RMIT University, has been working on applications for nano materials across many industries. He says the PV research was an opportunity to use his background to help solve an industry and environmental challenge.
He says the drive behind the research was to find a solution that was environmentally safe, affordable, and feasible within Australia.
Twenty to 30 years ago solar panels were made rigid to ensure they didn’t degrade, but there was never any thought about their end-of-life.
Ylias says landfilling solar panels can result in heavy metal leaching, which is why they have been classified as e-waste and banned from landfill in many states. Burning the panels to recover the materials releases fluorocarbons into the atmosphere.
“We wanted to develop a sustainable, non-toxic method of dismantling solar panels into compartments.”
The research has revealed that PV glass fines – small glass particles generated from grinding the glass – can be used as a partial replacement for sand in concrete.
Dr Massoud Sofi, the project’s research lead from The University of Melbourne, says this application can conserve raw materials used for concrete production and reduce its carbon footprint.
The production of concrete is one of the largest sources of carbon pollution, responsible for about eight per cent of emissions globally. Depletion of sand in the streambed and along coastal areas is also causing ecological issues.
SolarCrete is seen as one solution to alleviate reliance on virgin materials. The product was launched at the All Energy Australia conference in Melbourne in October 2022 and is currently being commercialised.
Massoud says the process needs to comply with Environment Protection Authority limits on heavy metals and comply with the Australian Standards, as construction material.
Ylias is also investigating refining the recycled materials of PV modules for possible reuse in solar panel production and looking at the processing of ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA), a material that has good radiation transmission and low degradability to sunlight.
ElecSome is taking the research into the real world with the PV module upcycling facility. A site lease in Kilmany, Victoria was secured in June 2021 and the separation technology equipment is being built in Victoria to be commissioned and operational before June 2023.
ElecSome aims to expand the solution across Australia. A site has also been secured in New South Wales, with the potential of a third in Perth, Western Australia. A nation-wide collection network will also be established to co-ordinate the stream of end-of-life PV modules, with the aim of minimising labour and transportation costs related to the collection process.
Ylias says that taking a research project to patent stage and commercialisation within three years is a big achievement. He says that when the project started the team had reviewed other research and literature on the subject and had a plan for its own solutions but that evolved as the research continued.
“We had a solution in the first year of the project, but we couldn’t make it feasible at industrial scale,” he says.
What gave the team a competitive edge is the combination of scientific support from different disciplines.
“It was people from all sides coming together. This is just one problem in the world, imagine what we could do for all the other problems in the world if we tackle them with the same mindset.”
For more information, visit: www.elecsome.com