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Researching Ways to Recycle Solar Panels and Lithium-Ion Batteries

July 22, 2022

Knowing that battery storage is significant to the future of renewable energy, the University of Kentucky, Louisville Gas and Electric Company and Kentucky Utilities Company (LG&E and KU) have partnered to develop methods for recovering valuable materials from solar panels and lithium-ion batteries, thus reducing future costs and further improving the environment.

Neng Huang (L) and Emmanuel Ohiomoba (R) Photo Taken By: Xin Gao

Neng Huang (L) and Emmanuel Ohiomoba (R) Photo Taken By: Xin Gao

The joint team, co-located at the KU building in downtown Lexington, is also working on a series of sustainability projects, including solar data analytics, energy storage, renewable energy integration, carbon capture technology and hydrogen production. These joint research projects with UK support the commitments made by LG&E, KU and its parent company PPL Corporation to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, with interim emissions reductions targets of 70% by 2035 and 80% by 2040.

A Method to Recover Silver from End-of-Life Solar Panels

According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), there will be an estimated one million tons of decommissioned solar panels in the United States by 2030.

"Managing decommissioned solar panels is becoming increasingly urgent," said Kunlei Liu, associate professor in the UK College of Engineering. "These decommissioned solar panels not only contain silver, a precious metal, but they also contain cadmium and lead, which are both heavy metals."

To prevent these elements from ever reaching a landfill, the joint team is developing a novel electrochemical method to recover silver and heavy metals such as lead and cadmium from decommissioned solar panels. This method is cost effective and uses less strong acid than traditional recovery methods.

The current focus is on decreasing the treatment time and improving the silver recovery rate. In addition, the recovered silver can be used to produce new solar panels.

Recovering Valuable Materials from End-of-Life Lithium-Ion Batteries

The team is also developing a new method of battery recycling to recover materials — including the expensive elements of nickel, lithium, and cobalt — from used lithium-ion batteries.

Lithium and cobalt mining are labor and environmentally intensive processes, making their recovery at the end of the battery's useful life crucial for sustainability. Currently, when batteries reach the end of their useful life they are placed in landfills or recycled using strong acids. 

The method developed by the team is more environmentally friendly as it does not require strong acids and uses hydrogen, water and heat to achieve separation. In addition, the extracted nickel, lithium and cobalt can be used to manufacture new lithium-ion batteries. This research is focused on increasing the metal recovery rate and developing the process for large-scale implementation.

LG&E and KU already operate Kentucky's first and largest utility-scale energy storage system — a 1-megawatt, 2-megawatt-hour lithium-ion battery. The battery is located at LG&E and KU’s E.W. Brown Generating Station, which is also home to Kentucky's largest solar farm. Having the two technologies at the same site allows the company to explore how batteries can improve the inherent intermittency of solar power, and to study ways to expand renewable generation and customer offerings.

"Our team is working to make batteries and solar power even more economical and renewable by recycling and reusing their input components," said Aron Patrick, manager of Technology Research and Analysis at LG&E and KU. "Moving forward, we will continue to leverage our partnerships with industry, national research institutions and universities, like the University of Kentucky, to meet our ambitious sustainability goals."

About LG&E and KU

Louisville Gas and Electric Company and Kentucky Utilities Company, part of the PPL Corporation (NYSE: PPL) family of companies, are regulated utilities that serve more than 1.3 million customers and have consistently ranked among the best companies for customer service in the United States. LG&E serves 333,000 natural gas and 429,000 electric customers in Louisville and 16 surrounding counties. KU serves 566,000 customers in 77 Kentucky counties and five counties in Virginia. More information is available at www.lge-ku.com and www.pplweb.com.