Solarcycle ($37M for solar cell recycling)

Solarcycle, an American cleantech startup founded in 2022, provides full solar panel recycling services. The company aims to offer an affordable and eco-friendly process for decommissioning solar panels and repurposing their materials for new uses.

Challenges: solar cell recycling

Photovoltaic modules are devices that can convert solar energy to electricity. Even though it is considered "green" equipment for producing alternative and renewable energy, it has a limited lifespan of 20 to 25 years and, at the end of its useful life, it becomes an electrical and electronic waste that needs special care. By 2030, the global accumulation of decommissioned solar panels could reach 8 million metric tons, and by 2050, 80 million metric tons.

Recycling solar panels is an important process that is still in its early stages. Today, only about 10% of panels are recycled in the United States.

Solar panels that end up in landfills may take hundreds of years to decompose, leading to waste buildup and taking up valuable landfill space. This waste can also release harmful chemicals and greenhouse gasses. Some solar panels contain toxic substances such as cadmium, lead, and mercury, which can leach into the soil and groundwater if not disposed of properly. This pollution can be harmful to wildlife and human health, as well as the food chain.

Solar panels contain valuable materials such as silicon, aluminum, copper, and silver, which are non-renewable resources. By 2050, the materials in decommissioned solar panels could be worth an estimated $2 billion. If these materials are not recycled, they will be lost forever, which will increase the demand for new raw materials and contribute to resource depletion.

However, recycling solar panels is a major challenge due to several factors.

One of the biggest challenges is the lack of harmonized regulations, waste management infrastructures, and coordination between the energy and waste sectors. The United States has no federal laws in place that mandate the recycling of solar panels, making it difficult to incentivize manufacturers and businesses to properly dispose of modules. However, some individual states have policies that classify panels as hazardous waste.

Another challenge is the cost of recycling solar panels, which currently far exceeds the cost of disposing of them in a landfill.  Recycling a solar panel costs between $20 and $30, while dumping the same panel in a landfill costs between $1 and $2. To build a robust PV recycling network in the United States, it is essential to reduce the overall cost of recycling. Rising energy costs, improved recycling technology, and government regulations may pave the way for a solar panel recycling market.

Recycling is already established in the glass, metals, and electronics industries, which can accommodate solar panels and other components of solar power systems. These processes typically involve crushing, shredding, and milling, usually after removal of the frame and junction box. An ideal recycling system would recover as much material from solar panels as possible. However, some materials located within the solar cells may be more difficult to recycle, such as silver, internal copper, and toxic metals like lead and cadmium.

The solar cell recycling industry is new and still growing, with researchers examining how to commercialize recycling to economically recover most of the components of a solar panel.

Solarcycle Technology

Solarcycle's recycling process is designed to maximize solar sustainability by providing a low-cost, eco-friendly, and comprehensive process for recycling and reusing retired solar panels. Solarcycle is already able to recycle 95% of the valuable components of solar panels, including aluminum, glass, copper, silver, and silicon. The company aims to establish a circular supply chain for the solar industry.

Solarcycle might use the solar cell recycling process developed by its CTO and Co-Founder, Dr. Pablo Dias. The recycling process is capable of separating and recovering the different macro components of crystalline silicon photovoltaic modules using mechanical operations and solvent immersion under conditions specific and a sealed apparatus. The completely separated and recovered macro components include metallic frame, intact (undamaged) glass, junction box, polymeric substrate, metallic contacts, and a mixture of materials, including the encapsulant, other metallic materials and the semiconductor.

Solar panel recycling technology

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