Sunny prospects for a recycling start-up

It is now only a question of time. In two years, the first solar modules produced in the early 1990s will come to the end of their technical service life. After a period of 20 to 30 years, the panels that date back to the boom in the German solar industry will need to be replaced on a large scale. A young company from Saxony-Anhalt is preparing for this and has developed a solution that not only cuts the amount of electrical waste being produced but also reduces the environmental impact.

In the building on the Health and IT-Campus (HIT) in Magdeburg, the future has already begun. This is where the first plant set up by the company Solar Materials is in operation. It is still in the pilot phase and large quantities of solar modules are not yet arriving at the company’s door. But the emphasis here is on the word “still.” Because important moves have already been made to ensure that this will soon change. Fridolin Franke, Jan Bargel and Dr. Jan-Philipp Mai have developed a technology that allows solar panels to be almost fully recycled. The special feature of their process is that it allows the silicon and valuable silver to be recovered, alongside the high-quality solar glass and aluminum. Silicon and silver are raw materials that are often simply wasted. “This makes the recycling process financially viable,” says the man behind the idea and the co-founder of the company Dr. Jan-Philipp Mai. The overall results also make it clear that the solution is both cost-effective and environmentally friendly. If the recycled raw materials are reused, around 80 percent less energy is needed than for primary production.

How does this new technology developed by Magdeburg-based entrepreneurs function? “We use a thermomechanical process,” explains Mai. “It bears no relation to simply shredding and sorting the materials. We use heat to break down the layer of plastic film that bonds the components together. Once this has been dissolved, the glass cover can be removed, and we can access the printed silver conductors on the solar cells and the cells themselves.” He explains that these can be returned directly to industrial processes. Even the plastic and wiring can be reused. This means that very little of the materials used originally to make the solar panels is left at the end of the process.


Solar modules can be almost fully recycled

The start-up from Saxony-Anhalt is providing solutions during an era characterized by rising global raw material prices and the awareness that climate action is urgently needed. The European Union’s Green Deal, introduced in 2019, is a program designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect the environment, where the concept of the circular economy plays a leading role. It is hard to imagine a technology that is more “circular” than that developed by Solar Materials. The large quantities of solar panels that will in the future be dismantled at the plant in the capital of Saxony-Anhalt will be used almost exclusively as raw materials in industrial processes. The three founders of the company have complete confidence in their plan and are pushing ahead at full steam.

Three years ago, the two graduates and the man behind the idea Dr. JanPhilipp Mai met at the Technical University of Braunschweig. All three of them were fascinated to find out what could be achieved with the right technology. And all three of them had identified the problem that many people still do not realize is even an issue. In the near future, stacks of old solar panels will start to build up in Germany, in the rest of Europe and in many other parts of the world. The founders of Solar Materials collected data, developed processes and made comparisons. Alongside his unbridled enthusiasm for the start-up project, Dr. Jan-Philipp Mai has also contributed his experience from other businesses, which focused primarily on silicon. Solar Materials is based on the results of several years of development.

Noticeable drive in Saxony-Anhalt

The three men began looking for investors in the area of Lower Saxony where they lived. But they found them in Saxony-Anhalt instead. In mid2021, bmp Ventures AG invested in the business. bmp manages the venture capital funds of Saxony-Anhalt and supports innovative companies with longterm, above-average growth potential. But this was not the only reason why the entrepreneurs are now committed to Saxony-Anhalt. “There was a much greater drive here than we had found elsewhere and the region is much more dynamic,” recalls Dr. Mai. Saxony-Anhalt also offered easy accessibility and an ideal business landscape. As Dr. Mai explains: “In the near future, an important factor for us will be returning the raw materials to industrial production sites using an efficient logistics system.” Among other things, Saxony-Anhalt has an established glass industry. This is a key consideration for the recycling start-up, because glass makes up 65 to 70 percent of the materials in the modules. “We fit in well here,” says Mai, thinking also of the history of the solar industry, which had strong links with Saxony-Anhalt and could have them again in the future.

Solar industry on the way up

The team at Solar Materials can feel the excitement in the air here. For example, the Swiss manufacturer of solar modules, Meyer Burger, no longer intends to sell machines for producing solar cells to China, but instead to manufacture modules itself. It has recently begun operations in a production building in the former Solar Valley area of Thalheim in Saxony-Anhalt. The industry is currently experiencing an upturn and the prospects for solar companies are sunny. The energy crisis has given a major boost to the sector. In addition, the German government plans to phase out the use of coal. By 2030, 80 percent of the electricity generated in Germany is to come from renewable sources. By comparison, in 2021 renewable energies were responsible for just over 40 percent of the electricity produced, with solar energy making up around ten percent. If Germany is to achieve its climate targets, photovoltaic systems need to be expanded alongside wind power.

First fully automated line to come into operation this year

The entrepreneurs have been given a further boost by these developments and they have recently secured follow-up funding. Alongside the additional support from bmp, they have also acquired two further European investors. The money is being used to build the first fully automated recycling line on the HIT campus, which will come into operation this year. At the same time, the company, which has its roots in the world of research, has to be transformed into a certified recycling business. The new line in Magdeburg will be able to recycle around 150,000 modules per year in the future. A new and larger plant will subsequently process around three times that number. Eventually, the three men plan to look for an additional site. “We will almost definitely stay in Saxony-Anhalt as we continue to grow,” says Dr. JanPhilipp Mai.

Creating a database

Alongside establishing the start-up, the three founders worked with the Fraunhofer Center for Silicon Photovoltaics CSP in Halle (Saale) to set up a module and material database. “As we start to receive modules during the next few years, we need to know how best to process them,” explains Dr. Jan-Philipp Mai. Solar panels have changed over the years and there are different types which will have different kinds of damage. “We are making preparations now so that we can work efficiently in the future,” he says. The plans for recycling solar modules are already in place and they are based firmly in Saxony-Anhalt.


Author: Manuela Bock