RMIT leads global research into solar panel recycling

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Researchers from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) are sharing their research on solar panel recycling and recovery of strategic metals including silver and copper, with a global network.

The network involves multidisciplinary teams of researchers and industry partners including New York University, University of Castilla-La Mancha, CSIR-National Physical Laboratory, King’s College London, EDIPAE, My Second Life Solar, HP Energy, and others.

RMIT School of Engineering Senior Lecturer Dr Ylias Sabri said while solar panels are helping to reduce carbon emissions, the infrastructure to scrap and effectively recycle them once they reach their end of life has been lacking.

“Solar panels have a lifespan of 25 to 30 years and contain valuable metals including silver and copper but there’s historically been little interest in recovering these strategic metals from discarded panels as it’s difficult and expensive to do, so they end up in landfill,” he said.

It’s hoped technology being developed by Sabri and his team could be part of the solution to improve the economic viability of recycling solar panels.

Spain-headquartered renewable energies engineering company EDIPAE is the network’s industry partner in that country, and has created a physical workshop for research collaboration and a public exhibition space, both in their Tomelloso-based office.

EDIPAE director Carlos Miralles Sánchez said the company is proud to contribute to a circular economy model for solar panels.

“We now have a physical space to work with researchers on a cheaper and easier recycling solution through this Australian technology and we also have a workshop with tools for creating prototypes so ideas can be developed as well as exhibited to the public,” he said.

Technological partner the University of Castilla-La Mancha will also use the space to deliver training workshops and conduct research through its Renewable Energy Research Institute.

It’s estimated more than 100,000 tonnes of solar panels will enter Australia’s waste stream by 2035, along with billions of dollars’ worth of materials that could be recaptured.

Solar waste in Australia is predicted to reach 100,000 tonnes annually by 2030.

Image: Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics

In March 2024, the Australian Centre of Advanced Photovoltaics (ACAP) called for large waste facilities in major cities as solar waste is predicted to reach 100,000 tonnes annually by 2030.

ACAPs ‘Scoping study: Solar Panel End-of-Life Management in Australia’ report led by UNSW Sydney; highlights projected cumulative volume of decommissioned panels to reach 1 million tonnes by 2035.

Commissioned by France-headquartered Neoen Australia, the report found the first wave of increased waste is expected to come from decommissioned rooftop solar panels and the report says near-term action is needed to boost the levels of recycling and prevent this waste going into landfill.

ACAP Executive Director Professor Renate Egan said the total material value from end-of-life solar panels is projected to surpass $1 billion by 2035.

“As a result, establishing domestic solar waste management facilities in Australia presents an opportunity for resource recovery. Recycling offers a gateway to reducing landfill, enhancing circular economy initiative, and job creation,” she said.

The report highlights a lack of specialised recovery solutions for the solar panel laminate and alongside high recycling costs and a limited market for materials there is a pressing need for more innovative recycling solutions in Australia.

RMIT researchers are able to introduce their ‘Integrating End of Life (EoL) Solar Panel Waste in Circular Economy Model’ internationally after receiving a $3 million (USD 1.9 million) federal government International Clean Innovation Networks grant, and over $2.6 million support from partners.

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