Strengthening circular economy for solar and battery technologies

Scientists at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) believe that other strategies besides recycling should be focused on to bolster the circular economy for solar and battery technologies.

In a new comprehensive literature review, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy‘s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) discovered that alternatives to recycling may have untapped potential to build an effective circular economy for solar photovoltaic (PV) and battery technologies.

These alternative strategies, such as reducing the use of virgin materials in manufacturing and extending product life spans, could provide new paths to building sustainable product life cycles.

Increasing demand for PV panels and lithium-ion batteries

These insights follow an analysis of more than 3,000 scientific publications exploring the life cycle of the most common PV and lithium-ion battery technologies, including starting materials, environmental impacts, and end-of-life options. The NREL researchers examined ten possible pathways towards a circular economy. The findings highlight key insights, gaps, and opportunities for research and implementation of a circular economy for PV and battery technologies, including strategies that are not currently widely adopted.

Demand for PV panels and lithium-ion batteries is expected to increase as the United States commences the transition away from fossil fuels to deploy more clean energy. Creating a robust circular economy for these technologies could mitigate demand for starting materials and reduce waste and environmental impacts. Circular economy strategies also have the potential to create clean energy jobs and address environmental justice concerns.

Finding alternative strategies to recycling

The researchers noted the emphasis on recycling may overlook the challenges and opportunities that research into other strategies could reveal. “If you can keep them as a working product for longer, that is better than deconstructing it all the way down to the elements that occur during recycling,” explained Garvin Heath, Senior Environmental Scientist, Energy Analyst, and distinguished member of research staff at NREL. “And when a product does reach the end of its life, recycling is not the only option.”

The deconstruction process requires more energy and generates additional associated greenhouse gas emissions to then build into another product instead of keeping the first product in use longer.

“People often summarise the product life cycle as ‘take, make, waste,'” Heath said. “Recycling has received a lot of attention because it addresses the waste part, but there are ways to support a circular economy in the take part and the make part too.”

Recycling to recover the materials used in the technologies is preferable to discarding them in a landfill, Heath added: “But if we can think about designing a product to use less materials to begin with, or less hazardous materials, that should be the first strategy.”

The challenges in developing PV and battery recycling methods

The authors also noted that challenges remain in developing PV and battery recycling methods. There are currently no integrated recycling processes that can recover all the materials for either PV or battery technology, and existing research has focused more on lab-scale methods.

NREL is already leading efforts to improve PV reliability, extend PV life spans, reduce the use of hazardous materials, and decrease demand for starting materials. This includes leading the Durable Module Materials Consortium (DuraMAT), which is researching ways to extend the useful life of PV modules, and the bio-optimised technologies to keep thermoplastics out of landfills and the environment (BOTTLE) consortium, which is developing ways to improve the recycling of plastics.

NREL is also a partner in the Argonne National Laboratory-led consortium ReCell, which works with industry, academia, and national laboratories to advance recycling technologies along the entire battery life cycle for current and future battery chemistries.

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