New NREL report shows recycling isn’t enough to keep solar and battery technologies thriving

Solar Battery and Recycling

After studying more than 3000 scientific papers, researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have found that there are many ways to make the solar and battery industries more sustainable. Their findings highlight key insights, gaps, and opportunities for research and implementation of a circular economy for these industries. Circular economies are systems that reuse materials and products instead of throwing them away.

Researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) of the U.S. Department of Energy have revealed that alternatives to recycling may have untapped potential for creating a successful circular economy for solar photovoltaic (PV) and battery technologies.

Solar Battery and RecyclingThese alternate methods—which include lowering the proportion of virgin materials used in production, recycling resources for new purposes, and extending product lifespans—might open up fresh avenues for creating sustainable product life cycles. The conclusions emphasize critical insights, gaps, and potential for the study and application of a circular economy for PV and battery technologies, including underused techniques. For these technologies, developing a strong circular economy could lessen the need for raw resources, as well as waste generation and environmental effects.

In addition to addressing environmental justice issues, circular economy solutions have the potential to generate jobs in the clean energy sector. Garvin Heath, senior environmental scientist, energy analyst, and Distinguished Member of the Research Staff at NREL, said, “If you can maintain them as a working product for longer, that's better than deconstructing it down to the elements that occur during recycling.”

In the 52nd annual Critical Review of the Air & Waste Management Association, titled “A Critical Review of Circular Economy for Lithium-Ion Batteries and Photovoltaic Modules — Status, Challenges, and Opportunities,” published in the June issue of the Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association, Heath and his NREL coworker Dwarakanath Ravikumar are the lead authors. There are ways to support a circular economy in the taking part and the manufacturing portion as well, but recycling has gotten a lot of attention because it addresses the waste part.

He asserted that recycling to recover the materials used in the technologies is preferable to dumping them in a landfill, but added that the first strategy should be to think about building a product that uses fewer materials or less dangerous components in the first place. Since most research has been done using lab-scale techniques, there are currently no integrated recycling procedures that can recover all the materials for either technology.

NREL is already at the forefront of initiatives to increase PV dependability, lengthen PV lifetimes, utilize less hazardous materials, and minimize the need for starting materials. This includes serving as the president of the Bio-Optimized Technologies to Keep Thermoplastics out of Landfills and the Environment (BOTTLE) Consortium, which is working to improve the recycling of plastics, and the Durable Module Materials Consortium (DuraMAT), which is researching ways to increase the useful life of PV modules.
Additionally, NREL is a member of the ReCell collaboration, which is run by Argonne National Laboratory and collaborates with business, academia, and national laboratories to enhance recycling technology for both existing and upcoming battery chemistries.

The study was supported by the Advanced Manufacturing Office and Solar Energy Technologies Office of the U.S. Department of Energy. The U.S. Department of Energy's main national laboratory for research and development on renewable energy and energy efficiency is NREL. The Alliance for Sustainable Energy, LLC runs NREL for the Energy Department.



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