How is Belgium transforming old solar panels into next-generation batteries, for the future of e-mobility?

SolarPower Europe, in collaboration with the Belgium Partners of Resilex (University of Liege, Ghent University, Recma Group and Comet Group) has recently released a comprehensive Q&A highlighting the work of Belgium researchers in the Resilex Project.
Read below how Researchers are exploring the benefits and the potential role of silicon in the development of new, low cost and higher energy-density batteries technologies, which would notably allow electric vehicles to be recharged quickly, and to travel a greater distance with a single charge.

1. What are the key components of a solar panel?

Photovoltaic (PV) modules are devices that can convert sunlight into electricity, without any other source of energy. The key components of a typical solar panel are polysilicon, aluminum, glass, as well as silver and copper. Silicon is the semiconductive material responsible for the sunlight conversion into electrical energy. Most silicon production comes out through mining and refining operations of the mineral quartzite. 
Silver is also a significant PV panel material. Silver, being the most electricity-conducting metal on the planet and having the highest thermal conductivity, silver contacts are preferred over other metal contacts in the solar industry. You can read more about the global solar supply chain in this recent report from the International Energy Agency. 

2. How are researchers in Belgium supporting Europe’s green industrialisation?

Two research groups from the University of Liège (GREEnMat, GeMMe) are collaborating to rethink the recycling value chain of solar panels in Europe and to explore the benefits of using recycled silicon, in the development of new, higher energy-density, and low cost-battery technologies.
Liège boasts a rich industrial past, strongly anchored in metalwork.  The city was a key industrial centre of Europe during the Middle Ages and became integral to the industrial revolution in the 19th century when English engineer, William Cockerill, built an engine factory there.  
With the RESiLEX project, researchers are honoring the city’s past, and offering a modern reinvention of the city’s economic foundation.
GREEnMat researchers are using recycled silicon from end-of-life PV solar modules, to produce silicon-carbon (Si/C) composite powders for Li-ion batteries. GeMMe researchers are mostly involved in the recycling process of silicon and silver from solar panels. 
Recma Group oversees the collection of end-of-life PV modules. The Comet Group is in charge of the mechanical recycling of the PV modules sent by Recma, to guarantee a continuous supply of pure silicon for the silicon/carbon composite production at GREEnMat.
Researchers at Ghent University are assessing the environmental impact of new silicon solutions. They are also investigating silicon recycling, and whether this reduces the environmental impact of mining and manufacturing.

3. How are recycled PV Panels contributing to e-mobility in Europe?

High-efficiency batteries with higher energy density are one of the keys to unlocking electric e-mobility in Europe. 
RESiLEX contributes to increasing the competitiveness of the European battery sector, by developing high-energy density battery cells, from secondary raw silicon produced in the EU through the recycling of end-of-life PV panels. 
High-energy battery cells allow electric vehicles to travel longer distances on a single charge. They also improve the charging capabilities of batteries which significantly reduces the time for recharging. In addition, they also enhance EV performance by offering higher power output for quick acceleration and maintaining higher speeds.
Notably, beyond the e-mobility sector, the potential of these batteries is also very important for energy storage for other major applications such as localised renewable energies.

4. Why should we care about recycling solar panels? 

Compared to other electronics like fridges, washing machines, or mobile phones, solar panels have a relatively long lifetime of around 30 years. However, solar panels installed in the early 1990s and beginning of 2000s, are reaching the end of their life. The world will also install thousands of gigawatts of solar within this decade (see Q.6). For this reasons, the solar industry is working with researchers now, in order to prepare for responsible end-of-life management for solar materials, and preventing a new recycling crisis.
Solar recycling is also a legal requirement in the EU, under the EU’s Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive With this directive, solar panels are in a category of electronic waste with an 85% recovery target, 80% of which consists of reuse and recycling. Solar panels are made up of several valuable materials, such as silicon, aluminum, and copper, that can be extracted and reused in the production of new solar panels.

5. What are the economic benefits to recycling solar panels? 

Waste volume of end-of-life PV modules is expected to grow exponentially in the upcoming years. Recycling waste materials from PV panels will become a stand-alone business model, driving job creation in the EU. According to SolarPower Europe’s 2022 Solar Jobs report, recycling jobs represented nearly 14,000 out of 466,000 solar jobs in 2021. This number should increase in the long-term when more installed solar panels reach the end of their life.
Finally, recycling solar panels will drive local and qualified job creation for Europe, as waste streams increase. Treatment and recycling facilities are already in place. 

6. How many solar panels does Belgium and Europe have right now, how many will they have in future? 

Solar energy is a key tool to support energy security and climate goals, and solar panels are more in demand than ever.  In 2022, the EU27 installed at least 41 GW of solar, a 47% increase from 2021.
The International Energy Agency says that the EU needs 60 GW of solar in 2023 to compensate for shortfalls in Russian gas. The EU could install as much as 68 GW of solar in 2023 if we ensure there are enough solar installers, and authorities streamline the administrative procedures to develop projects.
Belgium was the 11th largest solar market in the EU in 2022, installing 1 GW of solar, which is twice as much as Belgium installed in 2021.
Presently, Belgium has the 7th largest solar fleet in the EU – with 7.9 GW installed. Under Belgium’s National Energy and Climate Plan (required by the EU), the country’s average solar target is 8 GW for 2030. It is clear that market reality is outstripping national ambition. In a 100% renewable Europe by 2050, Belgium has the potential for up to 170 GW of total solar capacity. 
Therefore PV panel waste management and recycling will be crucial in handling this new type of waste. 
Thomas Garabetian, Research and Innovation Manager at SolarPower Europe adds:
“Projects like RESiLEX are key to developing competitive PV technologies that  capitalise on the excellent quality of European research and innovation, bringing more efficient and environmentally-friendly green technologies to the market.”