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Microwaves: A Potential Solution for Energy-Intensive Solar Panel Manufacturing and Recycling?

published: 2023-05-03 9:30

Solar panels play a crucial role in energy generation by converting sunlight into electricity without creating carbon dioxide. However, the high-temperature and high-pressure environment required to manufacture them can lead to increased costs, and recycling options are limited. Australian scientists have found a solution using microwaves that addresses both issues.

Solar panels are composed of solar cells, which use the photovoltaic effect to convert light from the sun or artificial sources directly into electricity. However, manufacturing solar panels is extremely energy-intensive. Silicon, a key component of solar panels, undergoes a heat treatment called annealing to modify its physical properties and performance. This process typically requires furnace temperatures of 900 to 1,100°C. Meanwhile, researchers are still exploring optimal recycling methods for solar panels that reach the end of their life.

Macquarie University researchers have proposed an energy-efficient, time-saving solar cell manufacturing process that also improves solar panel recycling. They discovered that using microwave radiation heating can achieve similar results to a furnace.

Microwave heating, known for its energy efficiency, heating speed and uniformity, and economic feasibility, has been utilized in rubber, ceramics, and wood industries. Microwaves selectively heat silicon, accelerating the annealing process, and conserving energy. Furthermore, microwaves can be focused to heat specific parts of solar panels, which is beneficial for new solar technologies, including heterojunction.

Microwave annealing is also environmentally friendly. Binesh Veettil, the study’s lead author, states that the process generates less pollution and can be carried out at room temperature. Researchers have discovered additional benefits, including how microwaves can soften waterproof and dirt-resistant plastic coatings on batteries, which could help expedite recycling in the future.

Current solar panel recycling techniques are too energy-intensive, as such, it is necessary to wait for new technology to be developed. Veettil explains that conventional solar panel recycling methods involve crushing the solar cells, heating them to around 1,400°C, and then washing them with chemicals to remove any plastics. This new microwave-based approach not only streamlines solar panel manufacturing, but also optimizes their end-of-life processes. Researchers plan to further study and test this technology.

 (Image Source: pixabay)

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