9PV: convenient photovoltaic panels recycling

Thanks to EIT RawMaterials funding, in 2020 a prototype of a treatment plant for the photovoltaic (PV) panels was constructed to recover the raw materials PV panels are made of.

The plant was tested at the beginning of 2021 and is now in the authorization phase in order to proceed with the optimization of the process.

The goal is to start building the industrial line in 2022!

Photovoltaic panels: problem and opportunity

In recent years, millions of photovoltaic panels have been installed to produce electricity without direct CO2 emissions. The average life of a photovoltaic panel does not exceed 25-30 years and therefore a huge amount of photovoltaic panels will require disposal in the near future. Today the solutions for the treatment of photovoltaic waste available on the market are very uneconomical or do not value all the materials contained in this electronic waste.

These equipment are generally focused only on the recovery of glass, which represents 80% by weight of photovoltaic waste, but the other fractions (silicon cells with silver, copper strips) are not recovered and sometimes compromise the purity of the glass.

How the project was born

The thermochemical process for the recycling of end-of-life photovoltaic panels allows the recovery from photovoltaic waste of all inorganic materials with higher yield and purity than mechanical treatments: this represents a not negligible advantage because it allows the creation of high value products.

This process has been studied for years by the University of Padova at laboratory scale and was further developed during the ReSiELP research project supported by the EIT RawMaterials (www.ReSiELP.eu).

During this research project, it was verified that the recovery of raw materials is feasible at TRL 7. Despite the good results obtained by RESiELP, the recovery line was not yet ready to be developed industrially because some parts had to be optimized to make the process profitable.

The 9PV project

In 2020 9-Tech, thanks to the EIT RawMaterials Booster project, continued the study of the process with the idea of creating a plant for heat treatment and separation of PV waste, 9-PV, with minimum energy consumption and better recovery of silicon cells in terms of yield and purity. 9-PV aims to become the first plant on the market capable of efficiently and economically recovering high purity glass, copper strips and silicon cells.

9-PV aims to become the first plant on the market capable of efficiently and economically recovering high purity glass, copper strips and silicon cells.

The recovery of these materials is very important in the perspective of a circular economy.

In 2020, our start-up built a pilot plant for this treatment part (capacity about 20kg/h) which was tested at the beginning of 2021.

The pilot plant is hosted at the Veritas Group’s Green Propulsion Lab, a platform funded by the Italian Ministry of the Environment for the relaunch of Marghera Port in Venice. The center studies green technologies and hosts several innovative start-ups such as 9-Tech.

In 2020, the company also filed two patent applications to protect the intellectual property of the developed technologies.

The new plant is much more efficient and economical than the previous heat treatment and separation process.

Next steps

The plant is in the optimization phase and a test campaign will soon begin to verify the quality and quantity of the recovered materials.

The process potentially allows to obtain from 1000kg of photovoltaic panels:

kg of glass
kg of aluminum
kg of silicon cells
of copper ribbons

If these data are confirmed, we are already refining the business plan and starting the general design of industrial plant with a capacity of 3000 tons/year.

In addition, the pilot plant will soon be integrated with the chemical treatment of the photovoltaic cells in order to recover metallic silicon and silver.

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