February 28, 2024

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Singapore Upcycles Old Solar Panels into Heat-Harvesting Electricity Materials

Image credits: ntu.edu.sg

Researchers from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) and the Agency for Science, Technology, and Research (A*STAR) have created a technology that can transform old solar panels into a new, high-performance thermoelectric material that harvests heat and converts it into electricity.

“This study demonstrates that thermoelectrics is a fertile ground for upcycling defect and impurity-sensitive semiconductors,” says Dr Ady Suwardi, team lead from A*STAR’s Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE).

To identify the ideal combination of materials, scientists from A*STAR’s IMRE and the Institute of High-Performance Computing (IHPC) each contributed their area of expertise in computational modelling and material properties.

On the other hand, under the direction of Associate Professor Nripan Mathews, researchers from NTU’s Singapore-CEA Alliance for Research in Circular Economy (SCARCE) used their knowledge of recovering valuable materials from solar waste to create the technologies necessary for recovering silicon from solar panel waste.

The amount of waste produced globally from silicon in end-of-life solar panels is expected to reach 8 million tonnes by 2030 and 80 million tonnes by 2050 due to the rise in the usage of solar renewable energy over the past several decades and solar panels’ short 30-year lifespan.

Solar cells, which are the building blocks of solar panels and are composed of silicon, aluminium, copper, silver, lead, and a complicated mixture of other materials, are called solar cells. Due to the difficulty and expense of sorting and recycling such materials individually, current recycling techniques primarily salvage the glass and metallic support structures from solar panels.

Most silicon, which is in 90% of solar cells, ends up in landfills. Reusing silicon is hard because recycled silicon has impurities and flaws that can’t be used to make solar cells that work. This makes it hard to turn used silicon into solar cells or other technologies that use silicon.

This was a problem, but the team turned it into an opportunity by coming up with a way to turn old solar cells into better thermoelectric material. Unlike solar cells, this technology takes advantage of the different properties of thermoelectrics, where adding impurities and flaws makes them work better instead of worse.

The scientists first used ball milling technology to grind solar cells into a fine powder to impart thermoelectric properties such as power conversion and cooling efficiency to discarded silicon and to improve the performance of the upcycled silicon-based thermoelectrics. After that, phosphorus and germanium powder were added to change their original properties before the powder mixture was treated using spark plasma sintering at high heat and temperature.

This initiative brought attention to the interconnected study by SCARCE that involves A*STAR recycling silicon recovered from solar panel trash into silicon-based thermoelectrics for generating electricity from heat.

The group will also try to test a technique for large-scale recycling of waste silicon, which can be used for high-temperature energy harvesting applications like generating power from waste heat from industrial processes.

This research partnership demonstrates NTU’s dedication to its 2025 Strategic Plan, which places a strong emphasis on sustainability and innovation for a circular economy. The NTU Sustainability Manifesto, which sets the university’s direction towards sustainability, carbon neutrality, and societal impact, is also supported by this.

This initiative fits in with A*STAR’s initiatives to create environmentally friendly approaches to waste management and energy efficiency. Researchers have demonstrated that by utilising resource recovery techniques and working with A*STAR, it is possible to produce valuable materials of high quality and useful in the production of renewable energy components.

To achieve the objectives of developing a circular economy—creating sustainable materials, extending the lifespan of diverse products, and reducing waste—researchers must collaborate with local higher education institutions and other members of the R&D ecosystem.

PARTNER

Qlik’s vision is a data-literate world, where everyone can use data and analytics to improve decision-making and solve their most challenging problems. A private company, Qlik offers real-time data integration and analytics solutions, powered by Qlik Cloud, to close the gaps between data, insights and action. By transforming data into Active Intelligence, businesses can drive better decisions, improve revenue and profitability, and optimize customer relationships. Qlik serves more than 38,000 active customers in over 100 countries.

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CTC Global Singapore, a premier end-to-end IT solutions provider, is a fully owned subsidiary of ITOCHU Techno-Solutions Corporation (CTC) and ITOCHU Corporation.

Since 1972, CTC has established itself as one of the country’s top IT solutions providers. With 50 years of experience, headed by an experienced management team and staffed by over 200 qualified IT professionals, we support organizations with integrated IT solutions expertise in Autonomous IT, Cyber Security, Digital Transformation, Enterprise Cloud Infrastructure, Workplace Modernization and Professional Services.

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Planview has one mission: to build the future of connected work. Our solutions enable organizations to connect the business from ideas to impact, empowering companies to accelerate the achievement of what matters most. Planview’s full spectrum of Portfolio Management and Work Management solutions creates an organizational focus on the strategic outcomes that matter and empowers teams to deliver their best work, no matter how they work. The comprehensive Planview platform and enterprise success model enables customers to deliver innovative, competitive products, services, and customer experiences. Headquartered in Austin, Texas, with locations around the world, Planview has more than 1,300 employees supporting 4,500 customers and 2.6 million users worldwide. For more information, visit www.planview.com.

SUPPORTING ORGANISATION

SIRIM is a premier industrial research and technology organisation in Malaysia, wholly-owned by the Minister​ of Finance Incorporated. With over forty years of experience and expertise, SIRIM is mandated as the machinery for research and technology development, and the national champion of quality. SIRIM has always played a major role in the development of the country’s private sector. By tapping into our expertise and knowledge base, we focus on developing new technologies and improvements in the manufacturing, technology and services sectors. We nurture Small Medium Enterprises (SME) growth with solutions for technology penetration and upgrading, making it an ideal technology partner for SMEs.

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HashiCorp provides infrastructure automation software for multi-cloud environments, enabling enterprises to unlock a common cloud operating model to provision, secure, connect, and run any application on any infrastructure. HashiCorp tools allow organizations to deliver applications faster by helping enterprises transition from manual processes and ITIL practices to self-service automation and DevOps practices. 

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IBM is a leading global hybrid cloud and AI, and business services provider. We help clients in more than 175 countries capitalize on insights from their data, streamline business processes, reduce costs and gain the competitive edge in their industries. Nearly 3,000 government and corporate entities in critical infrastructure areas such as financial services, telecommunications and healthcare rely on IBM’s hybrid cloud platform and Red Hat OpenShift to affect their digital transformations quickly, efficiently and securely. IBM’s breakthrough innovations in AI, quantum computing, industry-specific cloud solutions and business services deliver open and flexible options to our clients. All of this is backed by IBM’s legendary commitment to trust, transparency, responsibility, inclusivity and service.

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