Researchers at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, have come up with a new application for discarded solar panels — construction material.
A model building made from scrap solar panels is being studied at the IISc’s Centre for Sustainable Technologies (CST). About 30 kilometres outside Bengaluru, another facility is being built for the same research purposes.
Even as solar energy is growing in prominence as a sustainable source, recycling used solar panels remains a challenge due to exorbitant recycling costs. According to a report prepared in collaboration with the National Solar Energy Federation of India, SolarPower Europe, and PVCycle, it is estimated that India’s photovoltaic waste generation could reach 34,600 metric tonnes by 2030.
By putting End-of-Life (EOL) solar panels to use in construction, researchers have found a way to save discarded panels from ending up in landfills, thereby reducing the environmental impact of plastic and heavy metals present in photovoltaic cells.
“A solar panel’s lifespan is typically between 20 and 25 years. Its usable life can be extended by another 30 to 35 years by repurposing inefficient cells as building materials,” says Professor Monto Mani of the CST, who is part of the group conducting the study.
“Low-grade power may also be extracted from discarded solar panels. So they are more than just building materials; they can also power small gadgets in homes such as WiFi routers,” adds Mani.
Though solar panels are fragile, they can be deployed for construction purposes. “They are made with the same toughened glass as in automobile windshields, and can withstand rain and hailstorms,” he says.
Even as India continues to increase its usage of solar power, it does not have a clear framework in place for dealing with the waste generated by old panels or during their manufacturing process. “Some solar cell coatings are toxic and harmful to the environment and some are carcinogenic. When used as a building material, they are upcycled in a safe manner, and the back of the cells is usually covered with another material like wood. The effect that these solar panels may have on human health is also being investigated,” Mani tells DH.
“The question of whether or not the houses will be comfortable to live in is also being studied. There is a possibility that some heat could enter the residences due to the thinness of the panels. This facet, like many others, is also being researched,” he adds.