National expansion planned for novel photovoltaic upcycling

Melbourne and RMIT have partnered with Melbourne-based company OJAS to develop an ‘upcycling’ facility to convert end-of-life photo-voltaic modules to ‘value-added’ materials.

Key points:

  • New first of it’s kind PV upcycling facility rolling out in Victoria, with planned expansion across Australia
  • The facility is the result of collaborative research by the University of Melbourne, RMIT University and Melbourne-based company OJAS
  • Research applications include using recycled glass fines in the manufacture of concrete, with bonus sustainability benefits of reduced carbon emissions
  • The upcycling plant is scheduled to be operational by the end of 2023

PV module recycling and upcycling has become a significant emerging market, grabbing the attention of academia and industry, worldwide. The International Renewable Agency estimates the value of these materials to be worth approximately USD$15 billion by the year 2050.

Researchers involved with the project are working to maximise resource recovery and reclaim the valuable constituent materials of PV modules: clean glass, silicon cells and polymers.

Project collaborators, the University of Melbourne and RMIT University, are seeking to find optimal applications of these recovered PV components.

Research to date has revealed that PV glass fines (small glass particles generated from grinding the glass) can be effectively used as a partial replacement for sand in concrete.

Dr Massoud Sofi, the project's research lead from the University of Melbourne, says this application can conserve raw materials used for concrete production and reduce its carbon footprint. The production of concrete is one of the largest sources of carbon pollution, responsible for around eight per cent of emissions globally. Depletion of sand in the streambed and along coastal areas also cause ecological issues.

The research team is now looking at developing specific applications of the PV glass-based concrete materials.

The team from RMIT University, led by Dr Ylias Sabri, is investigating refining the recycled materials for possible reuse in solar panel production or other value-added materials. They are also looking at the processing of ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA), a material that has good radiation transmission and low degradability to sunlight.

The University of Melbourne team in the Department of Infrastructure Engineering, led by Professor Priyan Mendis, has more than 25 years of experience in up-cycling industrial by-products, including glass fines.

The project originally got under way in 2020 with a $3 million federal government cooperative research centres project grant to OJAS.

OJAS will employ an innovative physical separation technology from Europe to cost-effectively recover clean glass, silicon cells and polymer from PV panel waste.

OJAS CEO Neeraj Das says a site lease in Victoria was secured in June 2021 for the ‘first of its kind’ PV module upcycling plan, and the separation technology equipment will soon be tested and commissioned.

By the end of this CRC project in 2023, a PV module upcycling plant will be operating to process end-of-life PV modules collected Australia-wide and supply the recovered materials to downstream businesses for value-added products.

OJAS infrastructures is aiming to expand this solution across Australia.

A nation-wide collection network will be established to coordinate the stream of end-of-life PV modules, with the aim of minimising labour and transportation costs related to the collection process. The PV modules collected will undergo a series of processes to recover all their valuable materials.

First published on 15 February 2022.

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