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Recycling of end-of-life PV modules is not an extremely popular topic in the current economic difficult times for the PV industry. However, legislation in Europe creates a pressure to act.

The recast WEEE (Waste of Electrical and Electronic Equipment) Directive of the European Union now also applies for PV modules and has to be transformed into national law by early 2014. According to EPIAs Craig Winneker PV panels are the only power-producing source included in the scope of the WEEE legislation.  In addition, Italy anticipated this by its renewable energy law: Take-back and recycling is a mandatory prerequisite for granting access to FiT in Italy since July 2012. At the end of February, the Italian Energy Agency GSE approved with PV CYCLE Italia the most prominent recycling scheme in the industry as an accredited take-back and recycling system under Conto Energia IV and V. However, the decision also proves that competition is increasing for PV Cycle: Together with the take-back system run by the PV industry, nine other recycling schemes were granted this status in Italy by the GSE. Therefore, despite economic pressure, the topic of recycling is gaining momentum in the industry that likes to be addressed as green.

Recycling technologies

A main highlight of the past conference was the significant improvement shown by the recycling companies regarding the average recycling quota, which today gets as high as 85-90% of the module weight.

Si, Al, Ag, Cd, Te, In, Ge, Mo, Ga, Cu, Se, Zn these are the names in the periodic table of common elements in PV panel production, along with glass and plastics. Companies specialising in PV recycling have considerably improved their processes over the past years. A main highlight of the past conference was the significant improvement shown by the recycling companies regarding the average recycling quota, which today gets as high as 85-90% of the module weight, says PV Cycle Managing Director Jan Clyncke about their conference held in Rome/Italy end of February. So far the financing model of PV Cycle is pay as you go, meaning that each of the currently 307 members has to finance the current recycling according to the volume of PV panels it brought to market in the previous year (excluding additional financing obligations under currently applicable Conto Energia laws in Italy).

Loser Chemie is a chemical company making huge progress in PV recycling. The company has patented chemical recycling methods for CIS, CIGS, CdTe or GaAs thin film solar cells with a particular focus on cleanness of the recovered materials and separation of the semiconductors, which the company already uses for recycling on near to industrial scale. The different types of semiconductors used in thin film PV cannot be physically separated but need to be treated with chemical baths for dissolving. Through mechanical stress the plastic components are separated from the other components of the solar cells and both fractions can be treated with dilute with a hydrometallurgical method, explains Dr. Wolfram Palitzsch, Technical Director at Loser Chemie. The chemical extraction operates at room temperature. The result is a high purity glass substrate which can be integrated again into the material cycle of high quality flat glass production without compromising. Also the plastics can be reused again, and the metal salt solution can be treated with conventional methods to put them back into the material cycle.

Products from thin-film PV panel recycling
Products from thin-film PV panel recycling. Source: Loser Chemie

Only recently has Loser Chemie reached highest concentrations of the rare and valuable metals and a reaction time of less than 10 minutes with a formation of mesylates for treating chalcopyrite (CIS) and other compound semiconductors (CdTe, GaAs) cells and modules. On top of that, the brand-new method is even ecologically friendly as the mesylates are readily biodegradability.

PV manufacturers are rarely involved directly in recycling their modules. Solarworld as a pioneer in recycling seems to have reduced its engagement in the sector. The company that also stepped out of PV Cycle did not respond to interview requests for this article. One of the few PV manufacturers still active in PV recycling is First Solar. Although PV production has been stopped last year in Germany, the company operates a first generation recycling facility in Germany specifically designed for First Solar CdTe modules, but has further developed the technology. Says Andreas Wade, Director of Sustainability: In our two recycling facilities in Malaysia and the US, we installed the second generation of our technology which is able to recover around 95 percent of the semiconductor material and 90-95 percent of glass. This is possible through additional sorting steps which separate not only glass and laminate material, but also the metals cadmium and tellurium. 

First Solar‘s Recycling Process. Source: First Solar
First Solar‘s Recycling Process. Source: First Solar

The CEO of Saperatec, Sebastian Kernbaum, states that his method is already applicable for thin-film modules as well and in the development for c-Si modules; however, the technology used is different: The Saperatec method works with emulsions based on surfactants to separate composite materials. There is no chemical transformation taking place. For instance, in the recycling process of CdTe modules, not only the metals recovered are of high quality, but also the plastics delaminated. The method can be applied for recycling of production scrap, and if further pretreatment processes are implemented ahead of the process also recycle end-of-life modules. The 2010 founded company has changed its strategy recently due to the uncertainties in the PV sector from a recycling service provider to a technology and equipment provider.

Reiling is a recycler with a long experience in glass recycling. The company partners with PV Cycle for recycling end-of-life c-Si modules, but has no chemical treatment. This means that the silicon remains in the end product, which is glass wool and dam material, says Roland Pohl, Manager Product and Quality at Reiling. The company currently builds a new facility close to Magdeburg that can address the specific needs of PV modules better, such as the more efficient removal of metals. Reiling also partners with Loser Chemie and markets their glass products regained from PV recycling.

WEEE regulations and national scope of interpretation

An important change for the industry comes with the WEEE definition of the producer: Any company that brings the product into a specific EU Member State from another EU or 3rd party country is regarded as the producer in that specific country, no matter whether it actually manufactured the PV module or only imported it. According to Jan Clyncke the new regulation then also applies to importers, wholesalers or even installers who directly source from outside their domestic market. What can be decided individually by each member state is the categorization of PV waste as professional electrical equipment or as household electrical equipment. This makes a huge difference, as under the categorization of household equipment consumers would be able to bring their end-of-life modules to municipal collection points, which could endanger the existing take-back networks such as PV Cycle. Already established systems such as take-e-way in Germany could benefit. Take-e-way manages take-back and recycling of consumer electronics. However, Clyncke argues that if a professional collection is organized so well that zero tons of PV waste reach the municipal collection points, then nobody will need to pick up PV panels there. Another point is the mix of PV waste. Andreas Wade argues that this would make recycling difficult for First Solar. Our ambition is that despite the final national legislation we can maintain our own take-back-system to guarantee a homogenous mass flow to our recycling facility.  For more information see PV Recycling EU Mandatory 2014.

Bridging low volume and uncertainty

The challenge for PV recycling is to bridge the years of subcritical volumes and unknown legal status

Currently, the recycling companies lack significant volumes of end-of-life modules that would create a business model, which is why many of them rely on the multiple usage of their facilities, such as for delamination of windshields. PV Cycle between 2010 and January 2013 treated 5.443t tons of PV waste, too few for the recycling industry to specialise. Thus, patience is needed both to reach a significant volume of end-of-life PV modules and legal certainty. Even in Italy, things might change again once WEEE is transported into national legislation. As Sebastian Kernbaum puts it, The challenge for PV recycling is to bridge the years of subcritical volumes and unknown legal status.

Written by Andreas Breyer, Senior Editor, Solar Novus Today

Labels: recycling,PV recycling,photovoltaic panel recycling,PV panel recycling,solar panel recycling,WEEE,Waste of Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive

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