Three sections of PhotoValtic Waste from Solar Panel, Stage 2 of recycling (50 impulses of EHF). Image: Sara Urbanski, Aalto University, 2023


Recycling Li-ion batteries and end-life photovoltaic panels between the Europe and Africa

Dr Benjamin P. Wilson and Dr Saeed Rahimpour, Hydrometallurgy and Corrosion, Department of Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering, School of Chemical Engineering, Aalto University 

Reducing our reliance on critical raw materials (CRM) is integral to any viable transition pathway. Circular economy refers in part, to the conservation of the CRM value chain through recycling waste materials in more efficient and sustainable ways. Lithium-ion batteries and photovoltaic (PV) solar panels are significant technologies of the energy transition, in terms of electrical energy storage and renewable energy production. To meet the rising demand for batteries and PV solar panels, their production has been significantly increased, raising issues of supply (since they require critical materials extracted from finite natural resources), and environmental impact (spent batteries and PV panels are considered hazardous waste).  

Aalto University is a member of the RESTART consortium, a joint European Union and African Union project which intends to develop effective recovery processes to extract critical materials from spent lithium-ion batteries and end-of-life PV panels. The eventual goal will be to establish a start-up PV panel collection and recycling facility in Morocco to deal with end-of-life panels from local solar farms like the Noor Power Station that provides renewable electricity to North Africa and Europe. 

Aalto’s researchers from the School of Chemical Engineering are investigating the environmental impacts of the global supply chain of batteries and PV panels from mining to recycling to conduct full value chain lifecycle assessments. Such analysis looks at the materials and processes in creating batteries and PV panels, from exploration and mining to manufacturing and increasing the life cycle of battery powered devices. 

Currently, the best life cycles for these devices are approximately 10-15 years for batteries or 20-30 years for PV panels. Now that the first generation of PV solar panels are nearing this end-of-life cycle, solutions are needed for the recovery and recycling of their critical materials. Robust recycling systems have the potential to identify whether recovered metals can be reused in new solar panels, become a battery electrode, or be used to develop sustainable building materials. Through holistic analysis of the full value chain, RESTART aims to develop a sustainable supply chain for lithium-ion batteries and PV panels as part of the global circular economy. 

Addressing this full value chain has broader implications for the energy transition. Climate targets, like the Paris Agreement, consider solar energy a key source of renewable energy. Production which leads to the depletion of natural resources, or negative environmental impact through hazardous waste are not viable options. Taking this holistic approach to batteries and PV panels can ensure renewable, sustainable energy for the future.

9 Samples of PV Waste. Conventionally crushed (Hammer Mill), 300 impluse EHF, 500 impulse EHF : 4mm, 250 and 500 sample sizes. Image: Sara Urbanski, Aalto University, 2023
Seperated silver-plated copper wire, photovaltic solar panel waste, after 500 impulses EHF. Image: Sara Urbanski, Aalto University, 2023
Detail of photoValtic waste from solar panel, stage 2 of recycling (50 impulses EHF). Image: Sara Urbanski, Aalto University, 2023

Researchers: Dr Benjamin P. Wilson and Dr Saeed Rahimpour, Hydrometallurgy and Corrosion, Department of Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering, School of Chemical Engineering, Aalto University

Text: Peter Taggart

Image from remote site: www.aalto.fi

African European scientific partnership to tackle future critical materials shortages | Aalto University (external link)

A collaborative African European project RESTART dedicated to the implementation of a full value chain for recycling end-of-life lithium-ion batteries and photovoltaic solar panels has begun.

RESTART graphic

RESTART - LEAP-RE (external link)

Implementing a full value chain for recycling End-of-Life (EoL) Lithium-Ion Battery (LiBs) and Photovoltaic (PV)