Solar Cells Must Be Reused

Well over ten years ago, about 2010, when the great expansion of solar cell installation was just taking off, it was obvious to a Zero Waste theorizer that this was just one more item that would be designed for discard and maximum waste but needed to be designed for reuse. The same thinking applies to any other “magical solution” like windmills or tide-to-energy converters or anything else made by man. Industry however, sees it all quite differently. As usual, once the solar cells begin to wear out and hit the dump, they want to grind them up, smash them up and recover a few valuable components, and then call that reuse. Actually designing for reuse is nowhere on the spectrum.

As early as the 1980’s, when I was running Zero Waste Systems Inc. there was a company in Maryland that was processing valuable spoiled silicon blanks by removing the surface coating so that a new coating of microchips could be etched onto the surface. They did this by dissolving the surface in strong alkalai. Has that technology been lost? Why hasn’t that approach mushroomed into universal ways to reuse parts of solar cells? Instead, all we read now is about destroying all the parts of a solar cell to etch out a few metals. The most important part of a solar cell, like every industrial commodity is its function, not its materials. These cells have anodes, cathodes, separators, covers and other parts, all of which could be designed to be removed and reused. The metals and glass are the least valuable components. Why do these articles report exclusively on attempts to destroy the valuable function to recapture the cheap component materials?

Here is an article about the growing problem. The heading they use is RECYCLING. The only approach they consider is RECYCLING. Smashing and trashing is the only method they consider. After this recycling boondoggle fails like all the rest, in the distant future when we finally get flying cars and space travel, who knows? Will thickheaded industrial designers allow for reuse? Ya think maybe?

And here is an older article, but on the same subject. If you read the whole thing, you will learn that two scientists, Chen and Sloop, have figured out how to actually reuse a part of a solar cell but the only way they can open up the permanently sealed cells is by using graduate students to laboriously pry them open. The only way they can imagine to get lots of cells open, they joke, is to have “25,000 graduate students”. What is going on mentally in this field? Why don’t they come up with the obvious solution to change the original design so that the cells can be easily opened up for reuse? Apparently that would require a change in the original design simply for the purpose of intelligent reuse and that can never be allowed under any circumstances. Am I being too critical or too dismissive? What is your explanation? I’m buffaloed! Here’s the article.