Clean energy tech needs to be designed for recycling, experts say

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Too many adhesives hinder disassembly today

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Companies like Apple and Samsung aren’t the only ones making high-tech devices that are difficult to disassemble and recycle. So are manufacturers of important clean energy technologies such as solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicle (EV) batteries – and in contrast to the consumer tech industry, which is Slowly Beginning To reverse some of its unsustainable design practices, not much is being done about it.


Batteries, solar panels and wind turbines are all essential tools to tackle climate change. However, these technologies take considerable energy and resources to create, and the best way to ensure that we are able to recycle those resources at the end of life. But today, clean energy recycling is limited by design choices that hinder disassembly, including the widespread use of ultra-strong adhesives. That could change, experts say, if companies making supersized batteries for EVs and rare earth magnets for wind turbines move toward new adhesives that can be “de-stressed” using light, heat, magnetic fields and more. Bond”, or the design towards glue-free.

“Design for recycling hasn’t really hit that market yet,” says Andy Abbott, professor of chemistry at the University of Leicester who recently co-authored a review paper On de-bondable adhesives and their potential use in clean energy.

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Instead, Abbott says, manufacturers “overengineer” their products for safety and durability. Take EV batteries, which are made up of dozens to thousands of individual, hermetically sealed cells glued together inside a module and pack. Although heavy use of adhesives helps ensure that the batteries don’t fall on the road, it can make them incredibly difficult to disassemble reproduction of individual cells Or recycle important metals like lithium, cobalt, and nickel.

“At the moment, because everything is tied together, a lot of batteries are drained,” study co-authors Gavin Harper, an EV battery recycling specialist at the University of Birmingham in the UK, tells ledge, “The ingredients are mixed together, which further complicates the later steps in the recycling process.”

Solar panels and wind turbines are also designed for sustainability which makes recycling challenging. Most solar panels are made of silicon cells coated in layers of polymer sealant that bond the cells to weatherproof glass and plastic covers. Although this electronic sandwich design means panels can spend decades on a roof exposed to the elements, the adhesives and sealants used throughout the panels make it difficult to cleanly disassemble components at the end of life. Rare earth magnets inside wind turbine generators, meanwhile, are coated in resins and glues that can cause significant pollution to anyone retrieving and reusing the material. A single wind turbine may contain hundreds of pounds of rare earth elements, and there is a demand for these metals ready to touch the sky As the world builds more EVs and more turbines.

Abbott says manufacturers are just starting to wake up to the fact that recovering critical materials inside clean energy technologies is key to increasing long-term supplies — and new design approaches are needed to facilitate this. “Really only in the last 18 months, that conversation has started to raise heads,” he says.

The new paper by Abbott and Harper outlines several possible routes toward a more reusable clean tech sector. Although solar manufacturers are unlikely to phase out adhesives anytime soon, the authors suggest that manufacturers may move toward adhesives and sealant materials that are resistant to chemicals, magnetic fields or even a high-frequency Can be unstuck using Sonic Pulse. For wind turbine magnets, an adhesive that loses its viscosity in the presence of a strong magnetic field will not work, but one that can be melted using heat, or de-bonded when exposed to ultraviolet light Can be done, can be feasible.

Designs that use less adhesives can help improve EV battery recycling. If the batteries were easier to separate from the individual cells, Harper says it could make it easier to recover critical materials inside the cathode, including lithium, which is rarely recycled today. And at least one company is already commercializing an adhesive-free battery design: In 2020, Chinese battery maker BYD announced a new “Blade Battery,” which consists of long, thin cells that clip in main battery pack without the use of glue. “In terms of disassembly, it’s trivial,” says Abbott. “The cells just pop out.”

For EV battery manufacturers who don’t want to give up on glue-based designs, “there are a huge number of methods” that can lead to a more de-bondable adhesive, says Jenny Baker, a battery storage specialist at Swansea University. UK. In his view, the challenge will be to develop adhesives that can be quickly unstuck in a process that can be done on an industrial scale.

Baker said, “Now the thing is to try to take some of the science and get it into the engineering side so that we can actually get it ready for large scale recycling because we know there’s going to be a lot of these batteries coming out, Baker says. based on projected growth In the EV and energy storage markets, Harper estimates that by 2040, there could be approximately 8 million metric tons of battery waste in need of recycling worldwide. a Same amount of solar e-waste Recycling plants could be flooded by 2030.

In order to persuade manufacturers (and consumers) to adopt more recycling-friendly adhesives and adhesive-free designs, Baker says they will need assurance that the alternatives don’t compromise product durability or lifetime, which is known in the clean tech sector. It is often measured in decades. He suspects that many new designs will have to be “road tested” in products with shorter life spans where premature failure is “less than risk”.

This could include consumer technology markets, where sustainability-oriented companies such as Framework and Fairphone already intend to easily take apart modular and adhesive-free laptops and phones. Even industry giants like Apple and Dell have recently announced ambitious target And the product concepts are focused on recycling. Abbott already has preliminary talks with a phone maker about Glue that can more easily de-bond a screen, though he says the company hasn’t embraced the idea yet.

Ultimately, manufacturers may be forced to overcome their reluctance to change product designs for recycling if policymakers begin to mandate it or if the world is less likely to supply the metals and minerals needed to manufacture these technologies. faces shortage. Since clean energy causes the transition Rise in demand for hi-tech metalsBaker says companies need to start getting more creative about where they source.

“If you can get [a resource] But it’s a really high price, it’s bad, but you can pass the price on to the consumer,” Baker says. “If you can’t get it at all, you have no business.”

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