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Korea ramps up recycling to meet demand for PV panels

Korea’s Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy is building a facility for recycling photovoltaic panels which will be operational by the end of 2021.

The new site in Jincheon County will be able to process around 3 600 tonnes of PV panels a year, The Korea Times reports. The operation will break down the panels into its component parts of frames, junction boxes, back sheets and glass to recover silver, silicon, copper, glass and tin. ‘The whole extraction process leaves no by-products except the extracts so there are no environmental hazards,’ ministry official Cho Soo-yeon explains. 

Another player trying to boost materials recovery in this niche market is the Korea Institute of Energy Research (KIER) in Daejeon. ‘Lead can be extracted after collecting the solar ribbons from spent panels,’ according to Lee Jin-seok from KIER’s Energy Conversion and Storage Materials Laboratory.

His research team also found ways of retrieving aluminium and glass for new alloys and plate glass. The materials are separated from the panels either physically or (for glass) thermally.

To recover silicon and copper, solar cells and ribbons are first retrieved and then chemically separated to be recycled into new materials or as parts for the manufacture of PV systems.

Keep in mind that Korea is in ninth place when it comes to the generation of energy from PV panels, producing over 11 000 megawatts last year. Korea’s Environment Institute insists that recycling these units is essential. The organisation estimates that end-of-life solar panels are likely to increase from around 198 tonnes in 2019 to more than 9 600 tonnes in 2023. The figure is expected to reach 16 000 by 2028.

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