Ulrich Loser, CEO of Loser Chemicals in Saxony said he was sure his idea was a winner. “The testing phase is done and dusted and the prototype is working properly.”
He plans to use the process to revolutionise the disposal of solar panels at his factory near Zwickau, and not only make a profit but also change how engineers and scientists chose to get hold of vital rare earths.
These rare earths are essential to the manufacturing of electrical items like flat screens and mobile phones – but they are also crucial for making solar panels. Largely mined in China, rare earths have been shooting up in value as increasing amounts are used around the world.
In 2010 alone, their value increased by more than 300 percent and experts believe that global demand could outstrip supply by 2016.
Loser Chemicals’ chief engineer Wolfram Palitzsch, 44, said he first thought of recycling solar panels when he noticed the increasing prices of aluminium, a key component in their production.
He went on to develop a patented system in which the thin, silicon covered panels are plunged in a chemical bath – the contents of which are kept secret. He harvests the precious residue which is washed off in the process.
“In the residue there are rare materials such as tellurium, gallium, molybdenum, indium,” Palitzsch said. “It’s incredible that almost no one has thought of this before.”
The firm – currently producing chemicals used in water purification - plans to invest up to €700,000 in the project, but is already set to receive thousands of tonnes of old solar panels early next year, which will be used to start the process.
Germany is one of the biggest installers of solar panels in the world – and is set to replace almost all the older versions with new, more efficient ones, producing a bounty of recyclable material for Loser Chemicals.
The German solar power industry has already produced more than 3,800 tonnes of waste, according to EU reports which suggest that there will be around 130,000 tonnes of such waste by 2030 if nothing changes - and this despite the fact that around 95 percent of material in old panels can be reused.
“We have to start thinking about this now, not in 25 years when all the solar plants need rebuilding,” said Palitzsch.
Experts remain cautious about the prospects of Loser Chemical’s system, with Volker Steinbach, a geologist at the German Institute of Raw Materials in Hannover, suggesting it might be a long-term project if anything.
“Recycling rare earths is very complex, I don’t believe recycling them can be done on a large scale in the short term,” he said
“If there is any potential, it will be in the medium- to long-term.”