Companies like Apple and Samsung aren’t the only ones making high-tech devices that are hard to take apart and recycle. So are the manufacturers of critical clean energy technologies like solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicle (EV) batteries — and unlike the consumer tech industry, which is slowly starting to reverse some of its unsustainable design practices, there isn’t much being done about it.
Batteries, solar panels, and wind turbines are all essential tools for combating climate change. However, these technologies take considerable energy and resources to make, and the best way to ensure we can keep making more of them sustainably is to recycle those resources at 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 the companies manufacturing supersized batteries for EVs and rare earth magnets for wind turbines shifted toward new adhesives that can be “de-bonded” using light, heat, magnetic fields, and more, or toward glue-free designs.
“Design for recycling hasn’t really come to that market yet,” says Andy Abbott, a 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.
Instead, Abbott says, manufacturers tend to “overengineer” their products for safety and durability. Take EV batteries, which are composed of anywhere from dozens to thousands of individual, hermetically-sealed cells glued together inside modules and packs. While the heavy use of adhesives helps ensure the batteries don’t fall apart on the road, it can make them incredibly difficult to take apart in order to repurpose individual cells or recycle critical metals like lithium, cobalt, and nickel.
“At the moment, because everything is bonded together, lots of batteries end up getting shredded,” study co-author Gavin Harper, an EV battery recycling expert at the University of Birmingham in the UK, tells The Verge. “The material is mixed together, which makes subsequent steps in the recycling process more complicated.”
Solar panels and wind turbines are also designed for durability in ways that make recycling challenging. Most solar panels are composed of silicon cells coated in layers of polymer sealants that bind the cells to weatherproof glass and plastic covers. While this electronic sandwich design means the panels can spend decades on a rooftop exposed to the elements, the adhesives and sealants used throughout the panel make it hard to separate the components cleanly at end of life. The rare earth magnets inside wind turbine generators, meanwhile, are coated in resins and glues that can create significant contamination for anyone looking to reclaim and reuse the material. A single wind turbine can contain hundreds of pounds of rare earth elements, and demand for these metals is set to skyrocket as the world builds more EVs and more turbines.
Abbott says manufacturers are just starting to wake up to the fact that recovering the critical materials inside clean energy technologies is important for shoring up long-term supplies — and that new design approaches are needed to facilitate that. “Really only in the last 18 months or so, that conversation has started to raise its head,” he says.
Abbott and Harper’s new paper lays out a number of potential paths toward a more recyclable clean tech sector. While solar manufactures are unlikely to eliminate adhesives any time soon, the authors suggest manufacturers …….