Thursday Dec 08, 2022

When circularity meets climate tech | Greenbiz – GreenBiz


This article was adapted from Climate Tech Weekly, a free newsletter focused on climate technologies.

The second most-read story on last year was one that was actually published almost four years ago: An investigative report about what happens to solar panels when they’ve clocked their time as energy-producing members of society and are ready to retire.

It turns out that the way panels are designed makes disassembly and recovery of the various components — from glass to the various precious metals in them such as cadmium, gallium, germanium, indium, selenium and tellurium — a complicated process. Most wind up at shredders or landfills, because the case for selling the glass and aluminum in then doesn’t make economic sense.

Since that story first ran, not a whole lot has changed. But a project at Arizona State University hopes to create a solar recycling process that makes it simpler to recover materials such as silicon and silver from photovoltaic technology in a way that makes the economics pencil. Those researchers in early December received a $485,000 grant under a Department of Energy program focused on promoting circular economy processes in advanced manufacturing. Manufacturer First Solar is also kicking in funding, and it’s worth noting that several other solar manufacturing or recycling initiatives were also recipients of funding.    

We face a similar conundrum with wind turbines, so I wasn’t surprised to see that another story in the GreenBiz Top 25 most-read articles for 2021 is an article penned by senior energy analyst Sarah Golden about the fate of massive wind turbine blades after they’re plucked off their towering stems. In the European Union, some are burned and some are buried. There aren’t many options for recycling, although some major developers such as Ørsted have pledged to recover, recycle or reuse the blade components decommissioned from its projects. As the company reports: “Today, between 85 percent and 95 percent of a wind turbine can be recycled, but recycling of wind turbine blades remains a challenge, as the blades are designed to be lightweight, yet durable, making them challenging to break apart.”   

And therein lies the rub: Design priorities.

Most products in circulation in the world — including the climate tech we urgently need to transition to a cleaner economy — weren’t originally designed with circularity in mind, let alone end-of-life considerations. Pockets of change, however, are occurring that could and should serve as inspiration for climate techies.

One project worth attention as a model is Concept Luna, a Dell engineering and design initiative focused on reimagining a laptop to prioritize circular materials, repairability and reuse. While the proof-of-concept made in collaboration with Intel looks pretty much like any other notebook computer, many subtle tweaks with a nod to circularity could really make a difference if they are adopted commercially (still under consideration). They include:

  • Far fewer screws. Just four are needed to access the internal components for disassembly or repair. (That’s a 10 times reduction.)
  • A bio-based printed circuit board that dispenses with traditional glue. The polymer is water soluble, which means recyclers can more easily separate metals and other recoverable components.
  • A relocated, smaller motherboard. Not only did Dell shrink this component by 75 percent, it’s also in the top cover, making it simpler to repair or swap. (It also helps with heat dissipation.) 
  • A palm rest and keyboard mechanism designed for easy separation. These are two of the mostly commonly replaced components in any laptop, for kind …….


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