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Solutions to the problem of solar waste

Australia’s impressive growth in residential rooftop solar installations has established the nation as a global leader in renewable energy adoption. However, it has also given rise to a pressing challenge: solar waste. Australian universities, including Deakin University, are now at the forefront of finding innovative solutions to this issue, turning it into an opportunity for both environmental sustainability and economic growth.

In 2021, former Australian Environment Minister Sussan Ley acknowledged the importance of widespread solar panel adoption in reducing emissions but expressed concern about the lack of a comprehensive approach to recycling. This concern led to the launch of a ground-breaking study, led by Associate Professor Penelope Crossley from the Sydney Law School, which seeks to address this gap in renewable energy regulations.

Crossley emphasized the urgency of reorienting Australia’s renewable energy laws, citing that up to 90 percent of photovoltaic solar panels in the country currently end up in landfills as hazardous waste. These discarded panels contain toxic elements like cadmium and lead, known to pose serious environmental and health risks.

One of the key challenges in recycling solar panels is the cost associated with their intricate structure. Solar panels are laminated and glued together, making them difficult to dismantle for recycling. According to John Polhill from Sustainability Victoria, recycling them is far from straightforward. The cost of recycling a single solar panel in Australia stands at $28, significantly higher than the $4.50 cost of sending it to a landfill.

However, researchers at Deakin University’s Institute for Frontier Materials (IFM) have devised an innovative solution to this problem. They have developed a process to safely extract nano silicon, a valuable component of solar panels, and convert it into a highly sought-after material. Nano silicon, when separated from the panel, can fetch up to $64,000 per kilogram.

Nano silicon has various applications, particularly in the field of battery technology. Mixing it with graphite has resulted in the development of a new type of battery anode, which has been shown to increase lithium-ion battery capacity by a factor of ten. This breakthrough has the potential to revolutionize energy storage technology.

Dr. Md Mokhlesur Rahman, lead researcher at IFM, emphasized the significance of this innovation in advancing clean energy in Australia. The researchers estimated that if scaled globally, Deakin’s breakthrough could generate $US15 billion in material recovery from the 78 million tonnes of solar panel waste expected to be generated by 2050.

Recognizing the potential of nano silicon in electric vehicle (EV) batteries, prominent companies like Panasonic and Sila have begun exploring its application. They recently signed a commercial agreement to utilize Sila’s high-performance nano-composite silicon anode, Titan Silicon, which promises to enhance EV performance, increase vehicle range, and reduce charging times.

In addition to Deakin University’s research, several Australian companies listed on the ASX are making strides in battery innovation:AnteoTech (ASX:ADO): AnteoTech is developing additives and advanced binder technology to enhance silicon-containing anodes, contributing to lighter and more efficient lithium-ion batteries.Lithium Australia (ASX:LIT): Lithium Australia focuses on a “circular battery economy” by efficiently recovering critical minerals from end-of-life batteries and repurposing them for new lithium-ion batteries.Li-S Energy (ASX:LIS): Li-S Energy is at the forefront of lithium sulphur (Li-S) battery technology, aiming to commercialize high-energy storage solutions.Altech Batteries (ASX:ATC): Altech Batteries is working on CERENERGY technology, utilizing common table salt and ceramic solid-state technology to create cost-effective and long-lasting batteries for grid energy storage.These developments represent a significant step forward in addressing Australia’s solar waste problem and advancing battery technology for a sustainable future. As the world grapples with the transition to clean energy, Australian innovations are poised to make a global impact, both environmentally and economically.