Clean energy technology must be designed for recycling.
Apple and Samsung are not the only companies that manufacture high-tech devices that are difficult to disassemble and recycle. So are manufacturers of critical clean energy technologies such as solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicle (EV) batteries—and, unlike the consumer technology industry, which is gradually reversing some of its unsustainable design practices, little is being done.
Batteries, solar panels, and wind turbines are critical components of the climate change response. However, these technologies require significant energy and resources to manufacture. The only way to ensure that we can continue manufacturing them sustainably is to recycle those resources at the end of their useful lives. However, clean energy recycling is constrained today by design decisions that make disassembly difficult, such as the widespread use of ultra-strong adhesives. Experts say that that could change if manufacturers of supersized batteries for electric vehicles and rare earth magnets for wind turbines shifted their focus to new bonds that can be “de-bonded” using light, heat, magnetic fields, and other methods or to glue-free designs.
“Design for recycling has not yet reached that market,” says Andy Abbott, a chemistry professor at the University of Leicester and co-author of a recent review paper on de-bondable adhesives and their potential use in clean energy.
Rather than that, Abbott asserts, manufacturers “overengineer” their products to ensure their safety and durability. For example, consider electric vehicle batteries, which are made up of dozens to thousands of individual, hermetically sealed cells glued together inside modules and packs. While the heavy reliance on adhesives helps keep the batteries together on the road, it can make them extremely difficult to disassemble for repurposing individual cells or recycling critical metals such as lithium, cobalt, and nickel.
At the moment, because everything is bonded together, a large number of batteries are shredded, study co-author Gavin Harper, an expert in EV battery recycling at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, tells The Verge. “The materials are combined, complicating subsequent steps in the recycling process.”
Solar panels and wind turbines are also constructed, so that recycling becomes difficult. For example, most solar panels are made up of silicon cells coated with layers of polymer sealants that secure the cells to weatherproof glass and plastic covers. While this electronic sandwich design allows the panels to be exposed to the elements for decades on a rooftop, the adhesives and sealants throughout the board make it difficult to cleanly separate the components at the panel’s end of life. Meanwhile, the rare earth magnets used in wind turbine generators are coated in resins and glues that can cause significant contamination if the material is reclaimed and reused. A single wind turbine can contain hundreds of pounds of rare earth elements, and demand for these metals is expected to soar as the world develops more electric vehicles and wind turbines.
Abbott notes that manufacturers are only now realising the importance of recovering critical materials from clean energy technologies for securing long-term supplies and that new design approaches are required to facilitate this. “That conversation has only begun to emerge in the last 18 months or so,” he says.
Abbott and Harper’s new paper outlines several possible pathways toward a more recyclable clean technology sector. While solar manufacturers are unlikely to eliminate adhesives soon, the authors suggest that manufacturers may transition to adhesives and sealant materials that can be dislodged using chemicals, magnetic fields, or even a high-frequency sonic pulse. While an adhesive that loses its stickiness when exposed to a strong magnetic field will not work for wind turbine magnets, one that can be melted away with heat or de-bonded when exposed to ultraviolet light may be viable.
Designs that use fewer adhesives can improve EV battery recycling significantly. For example, if batteries were more easily disassembled down to their cells, In that case, Harper believes it would facilitate the recovery of critical materials contained within the cathode, such as lithium, which is rarely recycled today. And at least one company is already commercialising an adhesive-free battery design: BYD, a Chinese battery manufacturer, announced a new “Blade Battery” in 2020. The Blade Battery features long, skinny cells that clip into the main battery pack without glue. “It’s trivial in terms of disassembly,” Abbott says. “The cells simply snap off.”
For manufacturers of electric vehicle batteries who do not wish to abandon glue-based designs, “a huge number of methods available” could result in a more dependable adhesive, according to Jenny Baker, a battery storage expert at Swansea University in the United Kingdom. According to her, the challenge will be developing bonds that can be removed quickly and on an industrial scale.
“The goal now is to transfer some of the science to the engineering side so that we can get it ready for really large-scale recycling because we know there will be a lot of these batteries,” Baker says. Harper estimates that by 2040, there will be approximately 8 million metric tonnes of battery waste in need of recycling globally, based on projected growth in the electric vehicle and energy storage markets. By 2030, a similar amount of solar e-waste could overwhelm recycling facilities.
To persuade manufacturers (and consumers) to switch to more recyclable and adhesive-free designs, Baker says they will need assurances that the alternatives will not jeopardise product durability or lifespan, which is frequently measured in decades in the cleantech sector. She believes that many new designs will need to be “road tested” in products with a shorter lifespan and “less risk of premature failure.”
This could include consumer technology markets. Companies committed to sustainability, such as Framework and Fairphone, are already introducing modular and adhesive-free laptops and phones designed to be easily disassembled. Even industry titans such as Apple and Dell have recently announced ambitious recycling goals and product concepts. Abbott has already held preliminary discussions with a phone manufacturer about glues that enable a screen to be de-bonded much more quickly. However, the company has not yet embraced the idea.
If policymakers begin to mandate it or if the world faces metal and mineral shortages, manufacturers may eventually be forced to overcome their reluctance to modify product designs for recycling if policymakers begin to mandate it. In addition, as demand for high-tech metals increases due to the clean energy transition, Baker believes businesses will need to become more creative in their sourcing.
“If you can obtain [a resource] but at a high cost, that is undesirable, but you can pass the cost on to the consumer,” Baker explains. “If you are unable to obtain it, you have no business.”
Written By Tannu Sharma | Subscribe To Our Telegram Channel To Get Latest Updates And Don’t Forget To Follow Our Social Media Handles Facebook | Instagram | LinkedIn | Twitter. To Get the Latest Updates From Arco Unico