Thin-Film Recycling: A Winner For Loser?

Twenty years from now, today’s solar power installation boom could become a large solar panel disposal headache. The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition opened a lot of eyes to this possibility with a report in January 2009 [PDF], and among the group’s key recommendation for the solar industry: “Expand recycling technology and design products for easy recycling.” In Germany, a company appears is taking on an aspect of that challenge, at least with thin-film panels, but it’s difficult to say how much of an impact this effort could have, even if successful.

We caught wind of this story through the Local’s Germany edition, which reported that the unfortunately named company Loser Chemie is working on a method to recycle the rare earth minerals in solar panels. This led us to the company’s website, which reveals that its project is specifically aimed at the metals used in non-silicon panels – like First Solar’s cadmium telluride (CdTe) panels, and copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) panels like those made by Nanosolar.

solar panel recycling, Loser Chemie

image via Loser Chemie

According to the Local, Loser Chemie has developed a proprietary chemical bath that removes chemicals from the solar panels. It quotes chief engineer Wolfram Palitzsch saying, “In the residue there are rare materials such as tellurium, gallium, molybdenum, indium. It’s incredible that almost no one has thought of this before.”

Forbes contributor Tim Worstall points out that none of these is actually a rare earth, but the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition does say that tellurium (Te) is rare and that “its scarcity may eventually prove to be a bottleneck for CdTe cell production.” This, the coalition says, “will make the recovery of Te through recycling essential for the success of this rapidly growing technology.”

With this sort of possibility apparently in mind, Loser is reportedly set to invest more than $1 million into the process,  and is said to be looking forward to receiving “thousands of tons” of discarded panels early next year.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.