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Recovering Silicon From Old Solar Panels
June 29, 2015   
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Scientists from the Gdańsk University of Technology in northern Poland have found a new and inexpensive method to recover pure silicon from old solar panels. Such silicon can be reused to manufacture new panels, but also for the production of microprocessors and microcomponents or as an additive to improve the quality of steel.

Solar panels, also known as photovoltaic cells, are used to produce electricity from sunlight. Photovoltaics has become one of the most popular methods for using renewable energy around the world. The main raw material for the production of solar panels is crystalline silicon with about 99 percent purity. However, producing such silicon requires expensive, energy-intensive and time-consuming technology.

A team of researchers from the Faculty of Chemistry at the Gdańsk University of Technology, headed by Prof. EwaKlugmann-Radziemska, has developed a method to quickly and affordably recover pure silicon and recycle waste solar panels.

Innovative technology for the chemical treatment of photovoltaic cells makes it possible to recover silicon in the form of lumps or powder. Such material can be used to produce microchips, microcomponents and other integrated circuits, or as an additive for improving the quality of steel.

“In the case of worn-out solar panels of older types that contain a relatively thick layer of silicon, the silicon substrate can be recovered in whole and reused for the production of panels with electrical parameters no worse than those based on new material,” says Klugmann-Radziemska. “If the substrate cannot be recovered in full, the silicon can be used for recycling. In both cases, the recovered material is of very high purity.”

The method can be used for recycling first-generation solar panels, which are dominant on the market. Now Klugmann-Radziemska’s team is preparing to develop silicon recovery technology for increasingly popular second-generation thin-layer panels.

The Gdańsk University of Technology researchers took four years to develop their technology for recovering silicon. Over this time, they also developed a semi-automatic prototype of a special device that will make it possible to recover silicon from a dozen or so or even several hundred solar panels at the same time. Both the method and the device have been patented.

O.M.
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