Skip to main content

Industrial scale recovery and reuse of all materials from end of life silicon-based photovoltaic modules

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - ELSi (Industrial scale recovery and reuse of all materials from end of life silicon-based photovoltaic modules)

Reporting period: 2016-05-01 to 2017-04-30

During the past 25 years there has been a rapid expansion in the deployment of photovoltaic (PV) systems throughout Europe. There is no sign that this growth is abating. Early PV systems are now coming to the end of their working lives - a big disposal challenge that will increase in the coming years. Our team has identified a market and business opportunity caused by this growing problem. We have a technological approach that will be established and validated at an industrial scale during this two years project.

Our Industrial scale recovery and reuse of all materials from end of life silicon-based photovoltaic modules will face the following main objectives:

• Overcoming the limitations of current approaches
• Recovery of aluminium, glass, silver, copper, tin and silicon
• Minimum yield of 95 %
• High quality materials ready for reuse
• A representative full scale unit with an annual throughput of 1000 metric tonnes of PV waste
• Logistic system adopted to the requirements of eol photovoltaic modules
Within the first year of our ELSi project, we covered a wide range of topics. Project administration and management issues accompanied the technical work performed. These included the continuous monitoring of the risk and the preparation of an extensive risk register that has to be updated regularly and taken into account during the second part of ELSi project. Furthermore, various communication activities have been initialised so far. We set up an informative ELSi website in order to communicate all relevant background information and the current status of the PV recycling plant. The website is also a good tool to get in contact with first interested customers, authorities and experts to advance the dissemination of our ELSi concept and to achieve our ambitious objectives.

In parallel to the technical developments, the regulatory framework for our work has been evaluated. This has been worked out for the main delivery countries and in great detail for Germany and Belgium. It has to be stated that there are still some uncertainties in terms of handling and legislative classification of end of life photovoltaic modules. Moreover this is varying between different countries. The developments and changes of regulatory aspects will be further monitored in the second half of ELSi project.

Based on previous work a design for the PV recycling plant has been carried out. The final concept contains a mechanical pre-treatment step to remove peripheral components. The main treatment is a thermal process to remove the plastic parts. After separating the glass subsequent process steps are separating and purifying the various metals and silicon. The final design has been finished and currently the parts of the recycling plant get manufactured and built.

The engineering activities are accompanied by the development and adoption of a suitable logistic system for photovoltaic modules. This contains various aspects like transportation, collection system, contractual obligations for the procurement and the outbound logistics. First contacts with local collection sites have been established as well as a concept for collection, transportation and storage of the end of life PV modules.
By fulfilling the technical objectives in the project, ELSi will enhance the acceptance, the awareness of necessity and the business opportunity of establishing recycling processes in Europe’s industrial sector as an ecologically friendly alternative to the use of raw materials. As there is no commercially available photovoltaic recycling system ELSi project will progress beyond the state of the art, especially beyond solely pure academic activities in this field. This is very important, as end of live photovoltaic modules will generate an immense waste problem in the near future. Currently estimated and calculated numbers show relevant amounts of panels returning from 2020 respectively 2025 on. Thus it is necessary to have an established recycling system by then. By the end of our ELSi project a first economical viable PV module recycling plant will be tested and available for waste management and recycling companies all over Europe.

ELSi project intends to contribute to the solution of larger society challenges like:

• Closing the loops in raw materials consumption (95% recovery of materials)
• Increasing the energy efficiency of processes in order to preserve natural resources (Reduction of energy consumption for the thermal pyrolysis and exhaust air treatment)
• Avoiding the use of hazardous chemicals to protect the environment (by use of electrically driven technologies for recovery of metals and reuse of chemicals in the electrolytic and leaching processes)
• Recovering of valuable materials, thus increasing resource efficiency and decreasing the exploitation of primary resources (reuse of silver, coper, aluminium and glass at product quality)

ELSi technology expects to strengthen Europe’s position in the global market of recycling technologies and systems to improve the economic viability of industrial sectors involved in the recycling and in the consumption of raw materials.
ELSi PV recycling - illustration