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

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - ELSi (Industrial scale recovery and reuse of all materials from end of life silicon-based photovoltaic modules)

Reporting period: 2017-05-01 to 2018-04-30

During the past 25 years there has been a rapid expansion in the deployment of photovoltaic (PV) systems throughout Europe. Early PV systems are now coming to the end of their working lives - a big disposal challenge that will increase in the coming years. Projections based on an average lifetime of 30 years show that the amount of PV module waste will reach more than 600,000 tons in 2030 and more than 3 million tons in 2040.
Previous and upcoming regulatory issues, mainly based on the European WEEE (Waste Electrical & Electronic Equipment) Directive, make it necessary for manufacturers and suppliers of PV modules to provide a solution for the disposal and recycling of their products. However, currently no complete industrial solution exists.
Our project team from three different countries (Germany, Belgium and Spain) has identified the market and business opportunity caused by this growing problem of increasing PV module waste.
Our Industrial scale recycling plant for silicon-based photovoltaic modules reaches the following goals:
• Overcoming the limitations of current approaches
• Recovery of valuable materials with a yield of 95 %
• High quality materials ready for reuse
• A representative full scale unit with an annual throughput of 1000 metric tons of PV waste
• Logistic system adapted to the requirements of EoL photovoltaic modules
Our technological approach comprises mechanical, thermal and electrolytic based processes. After mechanical removal of cables and connectors, the PV modules are processed in a pyrolysis unit which removes any plastic materials. Afterwards, the aluminum frame can easily be removed and the modules are separated into a glass and a metallic mix fraction. The metallic mix is finally recovered by electrolytic-based processes. This approach enables the recovery of all material components:
• Aluminium (mainly from the frames)
• Silicon (PV cell)
• Silver (contacts on the PV cell and connectors)
• Copper (mainly from the connectors / cables)
• Tin (connectors)
• Glass
Of special economic interest is silver: Although silver makes only about 0.16% of the total weight of silicon-based PV modules, it represents about half of the material value.
Within this project, our consortium has realized a pilot unit for PV module recycling and installed it at the demonstration site at SUEZ in Knittlingen (Southwest of Germany). The operation of this pilot unit validates on the technical and economic performance of the ELSi process and will be carried on after end of the ELSi project.
On top of the realization of an industrial pilot unit, the ELSi project developed concepts for the collection, transportation and outbound logistics.
Therefore, our ELSi project enables a safe and cost-efficient way for the disposal and recycling of end-of-life PV modules and the recovery of the valuable materials.
The project included technical and demonstration work, innovation activities, and management work. Based on existing technologies which were developed by the ELSi partners in previous projects, the ELSi plant and recycling process were designed and the different plant components were built. Here it was necessary to realize a cost efficient pyrolysis process in accordance to all relevant environmental and work safety regulations.
It could be demonstrated that the ELSi process enables the separation of end-of-life PV modules into their valuable fractions aluminum, silver, copper and relatively low-cost materials like silicon and glass. The recovered materials will be sold to raw material suppliers and can enter e.g. new production processes of PV modules.
The operation of the ELSi pilot unit will continue also after project end with the target to provide a certified solution for industrial PV module recycling.
Further, the project work included two topics which are essential for a successful market penetration: Regulations and logistics. The work on regulations identified relevant directives, laws and other issues both concerning manufacturers and suppliers of PV modules and the recyclers. In Europe, the most important regulatory issue is the WEEE directive with their different implementation in the country members. These regulations are among the key factors which make it necessary for suppliers of PV modules to have access to a solution for the recycling of their PV modules. The work on logistics provided a concept that ensures that end-of-life PV modules from Germany and other European countries can be collected and transported to the nearest ELSi recycling site at minimum cost. Here the partners could base on the established collection network of SUEZ.
The ELSi project and its results were communicated by a wide range of dissemination activities, including the website ( industrial exhibitions, project flyers and an industrial workshop on PV module recycling held in Terrassa, Barcelona in April 2018.
Our post-project commercialisation strategy is based on a market assessment performed during the project. The pilot plant, which will be enhanced to a full industrial recycling plant, will be the basis for our activities in Germany, which is the first European country with significant amounts of PV module waste and therefore our first market. Medium-term focus will be to provide recycling services for PV modules throughout Europe.
The ELSi project provides an industrial pilot unit for the recycling of end-of-life PV modules. PV waste modules will become a major disposal challenge within the coming years, since the modules installed within the past 25 years are now coming close to the end of their lifetime and since no industrial solution has been established yet. The progress beyond the state of the art reached by the ELSi project comprises
• A technical solution and a pilot plant which processes end-of-life PV modules into separate fractions of aluminium, silicon, glass, silver, copper and tin
• A logistic concept that ensures collection and transport of end-of-life modules from their installation site to the ELSi pilot plant.
The ELSi project will be of economic benefit for both suppliers of PV modules and recyclers:
• Suppliers of PV modules are more and more forced to provide solutions for the later recycling of their modules or to contribute to the costs. This trend is mainly driven by regulatory issues like the WEEE Directive 2012/19/EU8 and its implementation in the different EU countries.
This is of special economic relevance to Europe: Although the manufacturing of the PV cells itself has been mainly transferred to Asia in the last years (previously, especially Germany had several leading PV cell manufacturers), a significant part of the value chain (system providers) is still located in Europe.
• The recovered materials can be sold by the recyclers as raw material to manufacturers
Apart from the economic benefit, the availability of an economically viable solution for PV module recycling will help to handle the upcoming environmental issue caused by large amounts of PV modules disposal (600,000 tons in 2030 and more than 3 million tons in 2040).