2022-01-15

Experts say clean energy technologies need to be designed as recyclable products

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batteries, solar panels and wind turbines are important tools to deal with climate change. However, the manufacturing of these technologies requires considerable energy and resources. The best way to ensure that we can continuously manufacture more technologies is to recycle these resources after use. Today, however, clean energy recycling is limited by design options that hinder disassembly, including the widespread use of super adhesives. Experts say that if companies that make super large batteries for electric vehicles and rare earth magnets for wind turbines turn to new adhesives, which can “de stick” with light, heat and magnetic field, or turn to glue free design, this situation will change

Andy Abbott, a chemistry professor at Leicester University, said: “products designed for recycling have not really entered this market.” he recently co authored a review article on degummable adhesives and their potential use in clean energy

Experts say clean energy technologies need to be designed as recyclable products

Abbott said that on the contrary, manufacturers tend to “over design” the safety and durability of their products. Taking electric vehicle battery as an example, it is composed of dozens to thousands of independent and sealed batteries stuck together in modules and battery packs. Although the extensive use of adhesives helps to ensure that the battery does not fall apart on the road, it makes it extremely difficult to disassemble the battery in order to reuse a single battery or recover key metals such as lithium, cobalt and nickel

Gavin Harper, co-author of the Research Report and an electric vehicle battery recycling expert at the University of Birmingham in the UK, told the verge: “at present, because everything is bonded together, many batteries will eventually be torn up. The materials are mixed together, which makes the subsequent steps in the recycling process more complex.”

solar panels and wind turbines are also designed for durability, which makes recycling challenging. Most solar panels consist of silicon cells coated in a layer of polymer sealant that combines the cells with weatherproof glass and plastic covers. Although this electronic sandwich design means that the battery panel can be exposed to nature on the roof for decades, the adhesives and sealants used throughout the battery panel make it difficult to separate the components at the end of its service life. At the same time, the rare earth magnet in the wind turbine generator is coated in resin and glue, which may cause serious pollution to anyone who wants to recycle and reuse the material. A wind turbine may contain hundreds of pounds of rare earth elements, and the demand for these metals will rise sharply as the world builds more electric vehicles and more turbines

Abbott said that manufacturers are just beginning to realize that recycling key materials in clean energy technology is very important to consolidate long-term supply – and new design methods are needed to promote this goal. “It’s really only in the past 18 months or so that this dialogue has begun to emerge,” he said

Experts say clean energy technologies need to be designed as recyclable products(1)

Abbott and Harper’s new paper proposes some potential paths to achieve a more recyclable clean technology sector. Although solar manufacturers are unlikely to eliminate adhesives in the short term, the authors suggest that manufacturers can turn to chemicals, magnetic fields, and even high-frequency acoustic pulses to remove adhesive and sealing materials. For wind turbine magnets, adhesives that lose viscosity under strong magnetic fields are not feasible, but adhesives that can be melted by heat or debonded under ultraviolet light may be feasible

the design using less adhesive can help greatly improve the recovery of electric vehicle batteries. Harper said that if the battery could be more easily disassembled into units, it would be easier to recover the key materials in the cathode, including lithium, which is rarely recovered today. At least one company is already commercializing adhesive free battery designs. In 2020, BYD, a Chinese battery manufacturer, announced a new “blade battery”, which is characterized by a long and thin battery that can be clamped in the main battery pack without glue. Abbott said: “in terms of disassembly, it is insignificant.”

Jenny Baker, a battery storage expert at Swansea University in the UK, said that for electric vehicle battery manufacturers who do not want to give up glue based design, there are “a lot of methods” that can lead to more degummable glue. In her view, the challenge will be to develop adhesives that can be quickly debonded, and the process can be completed on an industrial scale

Baker said: “what we need to do now is to apply some scientific knowledge to engineering, so that we can prepare for real large-scale recycling, because we know there will be many such batteries.” Based on the expected growth of the electric vehicle and energy storage market, Harper estimates that about 8 million tons of battery waste may need to be recycled around the world by 2040. By 2030, a similar amount of solar e-waste may flow into recycling plants

Baker said that in order to persuade manufacturers (and consumers) to adopt adhesive and adhesive free designs that are more conducive to recycling, they will need to ensure that these alternatives will not affect the durability or service life of products, which is usually measured in decades in the field of clean technology. She suspects that many new designs will have to be “road tested” in products with short life because of the “low risk” of premature failure

this may include the consumer technology market, where sustainable oriented companies such as framework and fairphone have introduced modular and adhesive free laptops and mobile phones designed to be easily disassembled. Even industry giants like apple and Dell recently announced ambitious goals and product concepts focusing on recyclability. Abbott has held preliminary talks with a mobile phone manufacturer on glue that can more easily disassemble the screen, although he said the company has not accepted the idea

eventually, if policy makers begin to impose requirements, or if the world faces a shortage of metals and minerals needed to manufacture these technologies, manufacturers may be forced to overcome their unwillingness to adjust product design for recycling. Baker said that as the clean energy transformation leads to a surge in demand for high-tech metals, companies will have to start more innovation in their sources

Baker said: “if you can get (a resource) but its price is very high, it’s bad, but you can pass the price on to consumers. If you can’t get it at all, you have no business.”