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I would like to know this in the context of calculating the benefits of solar energy - how the disposal of the materials used impacts the entire life cycle of solar energy generation.
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Solar panels can theoretically be recycled as shown in https://www.greenmatch.co.uk/blog/2017/10/the-opportunities-of-solar-panel-recycling.

But in practice (ref https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelshellenberger/2018/05/23/if-solar-panels-are-so-clean-why-do-they-produce-so-much-toxic-waste):

  • pollutants such as lead or carcinogenic cadmium can be almost completely washed out of the fragments of solar modules over a period of several months, for example by rainwater
  • Approximately 90% of most PV modules are made up of glass. However, this glass often cannot be recycled as float glass due to impurities. Common problematic impurities in glass include plastics, lead, cadmium and antimony.
  • today recycling costs more than the economic value of the materials recovered, which is why most solar panels end up in landfills

Processes are still in development (ref https://cen.acs.org/energy/renewables/Recycling-renewables/96/i15):

  • The EU has funded research including the Full Recovery End of Life Photovoltaic (FRELP) project. Italian mining technology firm Sasil, one of the project’s members, has been running a pilot facility based on technology developed by FRELP. Opened in 2015, the facility can take in 3,500 metric tons of PV panels annually.
  • Sasil says it is able to recover 93% of materials from used PV panels. Most of the remaining material is plastic, which is burned in the furnace to provide additional energy.
  • it is not problem-free: For every 1,000 kg of PV panel waste, about 20 kg of metals, including tin, aluminum, lead, and zinc, are recovered as hydroxides and landfilled. A further 2 kg of material is likely lost as nitrous oxide emissions during electrolysis, and 5 kg of ash results from the reduction of fluorine at the furnace phase.
  • The quality of the silicon recovered is not high enough for reuse as a photovoltaic material but is suitable to be used in specialty aluminum and steel alloys.
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