Not that there are all that many end of life solar cells currently, but there will be soon enough:
New research has proposed a cost-effective way to recycle solar panels to help handle an increasing volume of retired photovoltaic (PV) cells expected by the end of the decade.
In a paper published by a team from the University of New South Wales last week, researchers outlined a process to collect and extract valuable materials from solar arrays to see if it was technically, economically and environmentally feasible.
The process involves collecting solar arrays, stripping them of their aluminium frame, shredding the cells and using an electrostatic separation to collect valuable materials including silver and copper, reducing the panels to 2%-3% of their original weight.
The reclaimed material would then be shipped directly to a refinery for purification and processing.
Well, no, they’re not reducing the panels to 2 to 3% of their original weight. They’re stripping out the 2 to 3% that’s worth recycling, the rest goes to landfill (glass, plastic etc).
The process consists of module deframing, laminate shredding and material concentration using electrostatic separation. The latter outputs two fractions: a valuable mixture of silver, copper, aluminum and silicon, and a mixture of mostly glass, silicon and polymers. The valuable mixture accounts for only 2-3 wt% of the total module, which can be forwarded to the downstream industry for further refinement.
Now, of course, it’s a bit premature yet. But assume the paper actually stands up. The metals industry would happily take the Al/Cu/Ag/Si mix. Probably dump the Si along the way but still. Cu/Ag is old hat, a way to sift out the Al probably exists.
To be honest, if I knew of a 1 or 2 k tonnes a year stream of solar panels that could be had I’d probably try to set one of these little plants up. Because it would be a little plant. 5 tonnes a day of processing sort of size. Perhaps ship in a container sort of size.