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.
Dr Pablo Dias, lead author on the study, said it showed it was possible to run a low-volume facility capable of managing 1,000 tonnes of solar panels a year. This is roughly equivalent to 50,000 panels a year, or about 4,100 panels a month.
Related: Labour vows to treble solar power use during first term if elected
“This is something someone can pick up elsewhere, it doesn’t use any chemicals, it doesn’t emit any pollution or hazardous pollution. It produces dust from crushing the panels, but you have dust collectors there,” Dias said.
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Currently Australia has very little capacity to process and recycle solar panels when they reach the end of their life span. This is considered an increasingly pressing problem as the high uptake of rooftop solar and proposals for large-scale solar farms means a growing number of panels will reach the end of their lifespan.
A 2016 report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) found large-scale and early adopters of PV solar could expect the largest volumes of waste from old systems.
Australia was projected to generate 145,000 tonnes a year of PV solar waste by 2030, with the US expecting 1m tonnes a year and China 1.5m tonnes

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