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Battelle-led Team to Investigate Recycling Solar Panels 

By: Battelle Insider - February 2, 2023

A team from Battelle is one of 16 to win funding from National Science Foundation’s Convergence Accelerator program Track I: Sustainable Materials for Global Challenges. The NSF initiative is focused on converging advances in fundamental research and bringing solutions to the real world through a multidisciplinary approach with academic, nonprofits and industry members.

Battelle Lead Environmental Scientist Morgan Evans and Project Manager Jackie Kerber lead a team that proposed to investigate the circularity of materials in solar panels and named their project “Securing critical material supply chains by enabling phOtovoltaic circuLARity (SOLAR).”

”We are excited to be able to secure domestic critical material supply chains and enable circularity of solar panel materials, both of which are crucial for the U.S. to successfully transition to clean energy technologies,” said Evans. “At Battelle, we’re thrilled to be working with partners with rich histories in the photovoltaic and supply chain disciplines. Our interdisciplinary multiorganizational team is going to be pivotal in making sure we are developing solutions relevant to industry and stakeholders that will make a real-world impact.”

Co-principal investigator of the successful proposal is Dr. Garvin Heath, Distinguished Member of the research staff at the United States Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (where Battelle co-leads the management and operating contract).

Securing critical material supply chains by enabling phOtovoltaic circuLARity (SOLAR)
Securing critical material supply chains by enabling phOtovoltaic circuLARity (SOLAR)

Critical members of the research team also include:

Here’s the deal: Currently, experts believe that most old solar panels in the U.S. are landfilled at the end of their useful lifecycle. These materials could be recovered to help support the projected growth of solar installations, which DOE projects to grow up to 17x by 2050. Prior to recycling, reuse of PV modules is a viable option in many cases. Pursuing reuse strategies can lower costs for low- and moderate-income adopters and reduce solar’s carbon footprint by extending the useable lifetime.

If modules cannot be reused, materials within the modules can be recycled. However, it currently costs between $15-45 to recycle a PV module, compared to landfill prices of $1-5. Decision-making tools, technology innovations, and supply chain and logistics tools are needed to enable recycling of solar panels at economically viable scales. Enabling recycling and reuse of rare earth elements, silver, silicon, and other important metals is crucial to support a transition to a clean energy economy and to securing domestic material supply chains. The SOLAR program will use convergence research principles to collectively forge the key missing links for circularity of the critical materials present in solar panels.

Established in 2019, the Convergence Accelerator is a young program that dovetails with Battelle’s mission to use science to benefit society. The program is focused on advancing research toward societal impact; the program is intentionally developed around four key components to provide the highest impact. The four components include a convergence research approach, strong multi-organization partnerships, high-impact deliverables, and track alignment. The goal of Track I: Sustainable Materials for Global Challenges is to converge advances in fundamental materials science with product design and manufacturing methods with the goal to couple their end-use and full life-cycle considerations for environmentally and economically sustainable materials and products that address global challenges.