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South Dakota Mines researchers aim to make renewable energy even greener

South Dakota School of Mines and Technology
The research team working on solar cell recycling (L-R) includes graduate students Achyuth Ravilla and Tanner O’Hara, Dr. Jon Kellar, Dr. Brett Carlson, Dr. Celik Ilke and graduate student Emma McCalmont.

Researchers at South Dakota Mines have received funding from the National Science Foundation to get the most out of solar panels and the materials that go into them.

Ilke Celik is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Mines who said recycling needs to be a piece of the solar power puzzle.

“Our overall idea is – when we are preparing for largescale manufacturing of this new exciting technology, why don’t we also think about the end-of-life management?" Celik said. "So, recycling options of the new technologies – because it’s a huge problem.”

Celik said with renewables expected to represent more of the power grid in the future, solutions are needed for panels nearing the end of operation.

“We don’t have any solution for how to recycle them," Celik said. "What are we going to do with them? Do we remanufacture them – repurpose them? What are we going to do about those? That is a problem not solved yet. So, thinking about that coming problem before and making our designs more environmentally friendly.”

These efforts, among other things, include recovering precious metals like gold and silver used in panels that would otherwise be crushed after viability.

Celik has worked on this subject since her time as a Ph.D. student. After years of work, she said she feels emotionally connected to the issue.

“I think this is my responsibility at this point," Celik said. "I feel I’m preparing this technology for the market, and I’m super excited about it. I find myself totally a stakeholder of this, and the overall recycling issues in the United States.”

Celik said solar panels are most effective in places that aren’t too hot but still receive heavy sunshine. In turn, she said she believes there is strong potential in South Dakota for future solar development.

C.J. Keene is a Rapid City-based journalist covering education, healthcare, arts and culture.