Embodied Energy and Solar Cells

Embodied Energy and Solar Cells

By Devon Holst, Member-at-Large for the GCI

Embodied energy is the sum of all energy consumed in the production of goods and services. Knowing the amount of energy something ‘embodies’ is useful when assessing the environmental impact of comparable goods and services as well as assessing the utility of technologies that produce or save energy. If a device intended to save energy embodies more energy than it will save over the entirety of its use, the product is considered to be unfavourable. A net energy loss would be the result of its application.

It is important to consider the embodied energy of renewable energy technologies to ensure there is a net energy gain. I am going to follow the production process of silicon solar cells as an example of how energy can be embodied into a product. To be effective, the embodied energy of a solar cell must be less than the total energy it produces. There are many processing steps needed to assemble a solar cell where the embodied energy should be kept to a minimum. Some of the largest sources of embodied energy in silicon solar cells are described below.

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Silicon Processing (Additional embodied energy: 460 kWh/kg)

Carbothermic reduction of quartz sand (silicon dioxide) is used to produce metallurgical grade silicon. This process consumes 20 kWh/kg of metallurgical grade silicon produced. Metallurgical grade silicon must then be further refined to electronic grade silicon through a reaction with hydrochloric acid at 300 oC followed by treatment with hydrogen gas at 1100 oC. This process consumes 100 kWh/kg of electronic grade silicon. This silicon is then melted at 1400 oC and crystallized, consuming 290 kWh/kg of silicon single crystal. This form of silicon is suitable for use in a solar cell. After accounting for losses of material during each step, these processes embody 460 kWh of energy into each kg of silicon single crystal.1

Solar Cell Production (Additional embodied energy: 120 kWh/m2)

The single crystal of silicon is sliced into wafers with a multiwire saw resulting in a 40% to 50% loss as dust. Following this, a sequence of high temperature diffusion, oxidation, deposition, and annealing steps are performed. This adds 120 kWh/m2 ­­­of embodied energy to the solar cell.1

Module Assembly (Additional embodied energy: 190 kWh/m2)

A module consisting of a glass front panel, an encapsulant, the solar cell, copper ribbon, a foil back cover, and an aluminum channel is then assembled. 190 kWh/m2 of embodied energy is added during assembly.1

Support Structure (Additional embodied energy: 200 – 500 kWh/m2)

The module is then typically installed in a field or on a rooftop. In a field, the module needs to be supported by concrete, cement, and steel. Construction and materials add 500 kWh/m2 of embodied energy. Rooftops have an existing support structure reducing the embodied energy of this aspect to 200 kWh/m2.1

Miscellaneous Components

Beyond the former sources of embodied energy there are many other components in an operational solar cell. An inverter, wiring, and a battery are a few examples of these components. Depending on the components needed, this will add a variable amount of embodied energy.1

Devon_blog2Emerging technologies such as perovskites and organic solar cells often have much lower embodied energies than their silicon counterparts. Material processing methods and the amount of material necessary to produce a solar cell are a couple of the major factors that account for the difference in embodied energy of these technologies.1,2 There are, however, many other factors that make a solar cell viable for large scale energy production which when considered in aggregate currently favour silicon solar cells. It is likely that multiple solar energy technologies will thrive in the future as each has unique characteristics making one more applicable to a given situation than another.1,3

The energy payback time of a given solar cell is calculated by dividing embodied energy by energy output per unit time. This is the amount of time a solar cell must operate before it generates the same amount of energy as its embodied energy. Silicon solar cells have a 1.65 to 4.12 year energy payback time, while some organic solar cells and perovskites have energy payback times of less than half a year.4,5

Embodied energy is part of an even broader picture. A picture that captures the energy used to recycle or dispose of something and the energy associated with environmental impacts incurred through goods and services in any way. The picture is complex, but a deep understanding of it is necessary in order to make decisions that are conscious of the future.

I wonder how much energy I embody…

References:

1) Nawaz, I.; Tiwari, G. N., Embodied energy analysis of photovoltaic (PV) system based on macro- and micro-level. Energy Policy 2006, 34 (17), 3144-3152.

2) Anctil, A.; Babbitt, C. W.; Raffaelle, R. P.; Landi, B. J., Cumulative energy demand for small molecule and polymer photovoltaics. Progress in Photovoltaics: Research and Applications 2013, 21 (7), 1541-1554.

3) Snaith, H. J., Perovskites: The Emergence of a New Era for Low-Cost, High-Efficiency Solar Cells. The Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters 2013, 4 (21), 3623-3630.

4) Espinosa, N.; Hosel, M.; Angmo, D.; Krebs, F. C., Solar cells with one-day energy payback for the factories of the future. Energy & Environmental Science 2012, 5 (1), 5117-5132.

5) Gong, J.; Darling, S. B.; You, F., Perovskite photovoltaics: life-cycle assessment of energy and environmental impacts. Energy & Environmental Science 2015, 8 (7), 1953-1968.

Image Sources:

  1. Solar panels (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SolarparkTh%C3%BCngen-020.jpg)
  2. Embodied energy (http://www.paveshare.org/library/embodied-energy)
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ACS Summer School on Green Chemistry and Sustainable Energy 2017

ACS Summer School on Green Chemistry and Sustainable Energy 2017

By Samantha Smith, Yuchan Dong, and Shira Joudan

Yuchan Dong, who previously studied in China, had begun to miss life with roommates while in Canada. She reminisced about how you could talk about your lives late into the night, and spend meals chatting with friends in the cafeteria. “Luckily, at the ACS summer school, [she] got the chance to experience such life again and got to know a lot people who share same interests.” The summer school brought us back to the more carefree times of our undergraduate lives. Living in dormitories, sharing a floor with fifty-two other highly educated students, sharing every meal with our newly-formed friends, and even tackling homework assignments were just like the “good old days”. The level of diversity strengthened the value of peer-networking and real friendships were made throughout the week.

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The week wasn’t just filled with relaxing chats in the Colorado sun; that was merely how we spent our free time. The days were jam-packed with riveting lectures during the day, assignments in the evening, and getting to know the local Golden beers at night (which was obviously a duty of ours as tourists). We also had the chance to take in the local scenery with hikes and whitewater rafting.

The ACS summer school on green chemistry is a competitive program offered to graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, and industry members every year in Golden, Colorado. Hosted by the Colorado School of Mines, the program consists of five days of lectures from green chemistry and sustainable energy experts, two poster sessions, a whitewater rafting trip, and lots of opportunity for networking. This program teaches global sustainability challenges with a focus on sustainable energy. The ACS Summer School is free of charge for successful attendees, including travel, accommodation on campus, and meals.

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Samantha, Yuchan, and Shira at the ACS Summer School

Jim Hutchison, a professor at the University of Oregon, spoke about how his department has completely reformatted their undergraduate chemistry curriculum to contain green and sustainable chemistry, something that particularly sparked Shira’s interest as lead of GCI’s Education Subcommittee. Bill Tolman, Chair of the University of Minnesota Chemistry Department, shared how students successfully cultivated the safety culture within his department. This had inspired Samantha to create new initiatives within our chemistry department. Queens University’s Professor Philip Jessop taught us about Life-Cycle Analysis (LCA) and assigned us multiple processes for which we calculated the gate-to-gate LCA. Mary Kirchhoff and David Constable from ACS gave talks on green chemistry and ACS resources, many of which would be useful to other departments. The format of the summer school allowed plenty of time to chat with the guest lecturers during coffee breaks, lunches, and poster sessions.

Many real-world issues were discussed. The worldwide energy usage and sources of energy were a main topic of discussion, as was the use of alternative sources. We were blown away by how multi-disciplinary green chemistry is, and we were enlightened on how we need experts in all fields to successfully create sustainable chemistry. We learned that to be able to effectively tackle environmental issues we need great synthetic chemists, whether they specialize in organic, materials or catalysis, as well as analytical chemists, engineers, environmental chemists, and toxicologists. We also need effective entrepreneurs and lobbyists.

Nearing the end of the summer school, a large group of us hiked up Tabletop mountain to get the most amazing view of the valley. A warm feeling of appreciation towards the summer school for bringing us out of the isolation of individual research in the busy city life was shared. We would like to thank ACS for giving us the chance to attend this amazing week. This experience has truly been beneficial to us, and we plan to use the knowledge gained during the week in our own studies as well as pass this knowledge on to our coworkers at the University of Toronto.

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Tabletop mountain in Golden, CO

We highly encourage anyone interested in green chemistry and sustainability to attend this beneficial program. Application deadlines are early in the year and submitted online. The application consists of the applicant’s CV, unofficial transcript, letter of nomination from faculty advisor or another faculty member, and a one-page essay describing your interest in green chemistry and sustainability as well as how it will benefit the applicant.

Recycling Perovskite Solar Cells

Recycling Perovskite Solar Cells

By Judy Tsao, Member-at-Large for the GCI

Solar energy is arguably the most abundant and environmentally friendly source of energy that we have access to. In fact, crystalline silicon solar cells have been employed in parts of the world at a comparable cost to the price of electricity derived from fossil fuels.1 The large-scale employment of solar cells, however, remains challenging as the efficiency of existing solar cells still needs to be improved significantly.

An important recent breakthrough the field of solar cells is the use of perovskite solar cells (PSC), which includes a perovskite-structured compound as the light-harvesting layer in the device (Figure 1). Perovskite is a name given to describe the specific 3-D arrangement of atoms in such materials. Even though the first PSC was reported only in 2009, its power conversion efficiency (PCE) has already been reported to exceed 20%, a milestone in the development of any new solar cells which typically takes decades of optimization to achieve.2

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Figure 1. Thin-film perovskite solar cell manufactured by vapour deposition (photo credit: Boshu Zhang, Wong Choon, Lim Glenn & Mingzhen Liu)

PSC has several advantages compared with traditional solar cells, including low weight, flexibility, and low cost.3 There are, however, several challenges that must be overcome before PSC can be brought to the market. The most common PSC to date includes CH3NH3PbI3 and related materials, which contain soluble lead (II) salts that are toxic and strictly regulated.

Interestingly, there has been a consensus in the literature that the lead content in the perovskite layer is not actually the main issue in the environmental impact of PSC production.4 Part of the reason for this conclusion is simply that the thickness of perovskite layer required would amount to less than 1000 mg of lead in one square meter of material. This value is only modest compared to lead pollution from other human sources such as lead paints or lead batteries.5

The main environmental concerns regarding PSCs appear to lie in the use of gold and high temperature processes during the manufacturing of the devices.6 It has thus been suggested that, in order to reduce the environmental impact of PSCs, recycling of raw materials is very important. In a recent study by Kadro et al., 7 a facile protocol for the recycling of perovskite solar cell was developed. The entire procedure takes place at room temperature and takes less than 10 minutes (Figure 2).

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Figure 2. Schematic process for recycling PSC components [7].

As it turns out, components of a fully assembled PSC can be extracted by sequentially placing the device in different solvents. Step 1 of the procedure uses chlorobenzene to remove the gold layer, while step two uses ethanol to dissolve CH3NH3I. This then leaves PbI2 to be the only component remaining on the device, which can be removed by just a few drops of N,N-dimethylformamide. It is also worth noting that the recycled materials can be fabricated into a complete PSC again without significant drop in performance.

Even though the discovery of PSC has only been made less than a decade ago, its potential in applications in photovoltaics has been underlined by numerous studies. It is especially gratifying to see that the environmental impacts of such devices are already under active research before PSCs are introduced to the market. While these studies have demonstrated that PSCs have low environmental impacts when properly recycled, there are other challenges still facing researchers in this field. In particular, the short lifetime of such devices needs to be improved to match that of traditional silicon-based solar cells. Nevertheless, the facile method of recycling PSCs without compromising the performance will certainly make them even more competitive than traditional solar cells.

References:

  1. Branker, K. et al. Renewable Sustainable Energy Rev. 2011, 15, 4470.
  2. Yang, W. S. et al. Science, 2015, 348, 1234.
  3. Snaith, H. J. Phys. Chem. Lett. 2013, 4, 3623.
  4. Serrano-Lujan, L. et al. Energy Mater. 2015, 5, 150119.
  5. Dabini, D. Phys., 2015, 6, 3546.
  6. Espinosa, N. et al. Adv. Energy Mater. 2015, 5, 1.
  7. Kadro, J. M. et al. Energy, Environ. Sci. 2016, 9, 3172.

 

Iceland is Greener Than You Think

By Peter Mirtchev, Member-at-Large for the GCI

This past summer I had the opportunity to travel to Iceland as part of the Global Renewable Energy Education Network’s (GREEN) 10-day program in Renewable Energy & Sustainability. GREEN organizes educational adventure workshops in a number of unique locations including Iceland, Costa Rica, and Peru. The trips are focused on a central theme such as Renewable Energy or Water Resource Management, and are open to undergraduate and graduate students from around the world through a competitive application process. The registration fees cover all expenses except the flight and even though the cost might be steep for a student budget, there are plenty of funding opportunities to explore through your university’s financial office. Feel free to email the GCI if you’re interested and want to know more!

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Iceland is as interesting to learn about as it is beautiful to explore. And that’s a lot.

Iceland is an amazing place. The country is completely isolated on a volcanic island in the mid-Atlantic and has a population of just over 300,000 or about the same as a few large sports stadiums packed together. As such, it tends to lead the world in per capita categories; for example Iceland has the most tractors per acre of arable land, but the second least amount of actual arable land of all countries that practice agriculture. More relevantly, Iceland is a global leader in renewable energy, supplying approximately 80% of its total energy demand from renewable sources. The country has abundant geothermal and hydroelectric resources that are used for heating and electricity generation respectively. In fact, the only fossil fuel burned in Iceland is the gasoline used to power everyone’s cars!

A geothermal plant in Iceland.

As part of the program, our group got guided tours of two geothermal and hydroelectric power plants and two days of energy lectures from professors at Reykjavik University’s School of Energy. We were also invited to a reception by Iceland’s President, Olafur Grimsson, where we discussed global renewable energy policy and how we might be able to implement some of the lessons learned in Iceland when we return to our home countries. At the end of the program, we developed innovative Capstone Projects and got feedback on their feasibility. And that was only the educational aspect of the program! When not working, we took advantage of Iceland’s stunning natural beauty, doing everything from soaking in hot springs to hiking on glaciers.

I’d like to conclude by saying that I only became aware of this fascinating program by being part of the GCI. As we’ve become more established and started getting more recognition outside of U of T, we’ve received many new opportunities for our members to get involved in outside initiatives. This has helped us expand our knowledge of sustainability, and helped us professionally by introducing us to many new contacts. To students, this is hugely helpful and I encourage anyone with an interest in sustainability to get involved in any initiative that tries to lessen our impact on our planet.

And try to go to Iceland. You won’t regret it.