The new microwave technology improves the manufacturing of solar cells by reducing the energy required to heat critical elements of the product, such as silicon.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the most common type of solar panel is made with an aluminum frame, glass, copper wire, protective plastic layers, and silicon cells. The plastic layers and adhesives can make disassembly and recycling difficult, requiring extremely high temperatures and harsh chemical processes. These methods are energy-demanding and expensive.
Microwave radiation makes processes at the beginning and end of a solar panel’s life cycle more efficient. Using microwave treatment, the protective coating softens enough to be removed without high heat or chemicals. Once the materials are separated, the individual components can be recycled or reused.
The Wall Street Journal reports the world’s solar panel waste is expected to reach more than 1.1 million tons in 2035, with recovered materials worth $450 million by 2030. As waste management braces for an influx of solar panel waste in the coming decades, this new technology could lessen the onslaught by reducing the energy and cost of extracting reusable materials from decommissioned panels.
Previously, “it made economic sense to just dump the panels in the landfill,” Veettil says, highlighting the impact of this new technology that could save valuable materials from being lost in the waste stream. As large quantities of 20- to 30-year-old solar panels reach the end of their lifespans, “governments are demanding they be recycled,” Veetill continues.
Microwave technology continues to provide advantages in further research and development in solar panel innovation. One of the paper’s co-authors is using the technology to develop more efficient solar cells with flexible, lightweight materials that are less costly to produce.
While we don’t yet know when this technology might be adopted at scale, valuable research developments like this remind us that the future of clean energy is still bright.
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