The solar industry experienced its most profitable year in 2020. As more consumers adopted sustainable lifestyles, they searched for technology to back their emission reduction efforts. Yet most energy in major consumer markets such as the United States derives from fossil fuels, limiting climate mitigation efforts.
Encouragingly, however, researchers are exploring new ways to support renewable energy and achieve national carbon-neutrality goals. One of the environmental challenges is associated with solar panel production processes that are often not sustainable.
This is where a Nobel Prize-winning invention in chemistry can help by minimizing the environmental impacts of solar panels.
Conventional industrial production practices used 36% of the US’s energy supply last year. Most of the energy sources create greenhouse gas emissions. When emissions reach the atmosphere, they alter its composition and hinder Earth’s temperature control process.
Naturally, the planet absorbs sunlight, makes heat, warms its surface, collects additional energy and sends it to space. When greenhouse gases invade the atmosphere, they alter the process. Emissions convert sunlight to heat more efficiently than traditional atmospheric elements. They also hold excess energy in the environment, refueling the heating process. Overproducing and trapping heat on the planet raises surface-level temperatures and creates ripple effects of environmental degradation.
Solar panel production uses caustic chemicals like hydrofluoric acid and sodium hydroxide. Manufacturers also use water-intensive practices to create panel parts. The chemical and wastewater pollution generated by the manufacturing process limits the renewable energy devices’ sustainability.
Limited recycling opportunities create an environmental challenge when panels reach their expiration dates. Chemicals like 1, 1, 1-Trichloroethane can leak into local ecosystems and contribute to ozone depletion. This substance can also create alcohol poisoning-like reactions in humans who closely interact with it.
A Nobel project
Two scientists, David W.C. MacMillan and Benjamin List, who recently won the Nobel Prize in chemistry, evaluated the energy and chemical challenges of solar panel manufacturing and created an ecofriendly solution. They discovered a method of developing molecules with minimal environmental impacts.
The invention can help the US and other nations shrink their carbon footprints while minimizing surface-level pollution.
MacMillan and List developed an effective molecular construction tool with minimal ecological impacts called organocatalysis. Chemists use catalysts to create many products that aid chemical reactions in pharmaceuticals, plastics, food additives and solar cell production.
Researchers estimate that 35% of the global gross domestic product (GDP) derives from catalysis. Previously, chemists used metals and enzymes to produce reactions. The organocatalysts add another option for reaction enhancement.
Catalysis creates small organic molecules using traditional metal compounds. Organocatalysts can capture solar radiation in cells, reducing the demand for toxic additives. Using metal compounds also reduces mining-derived degradation while collecting rare and depletable resources.
Minimizing degradation creates various environmental and economic benefits. President Joe Biden established a national carbon-neutrality goal upon entering office; however, continued global attachment to fossil-fuel-derived energy sources limits the achievability of the plan.
Solar offers an emissionless method of maintaining modern lifestyles while preserving the atmosphere. Reducing all harmful effects of solar power and panel production may effectively reduce atmospheric and surface-level pollution while supporting conventional activities, like powering electric vehicles.
The Nobel Prize winners also created a demand for increased awareness about a product’s life cycle. People rarely consider their purchases’ impacts before or after their uses. The development of organocatalysts can increase their considerations.
People must assess the complete environmental impacts of solar panel production, use and disposal processes. Manufacturing creates large quantities of emissions and surface-level chemical pollution. Production facilities generate about two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions.
The environmental costs of manufacturing
MacMillan and List’s invention jhas also increased awareness of manufacturing facilities’ ecological impacts. When we purchase a product constructed in a nonsustainable manner, we take on a portion of the emissions, expanding our carbon footprints. Viewing society’s responsibility for atmospheric degradation using the life cycle process promotes eco-friendly purchases.
More people are exploring their connection to climate change and increasing the demand for eco-conscious products, like sustainably manufactured solar panels. A significant portion of consumers believe green production practices are necessary. About 75% of millennial customers are willing to pay higher prices for less ecologically harmful products.
As eco-consciousness rises, environmental engineers and scientists must develop additional emission and surface pollution reduction techniques. The Nobel Prize project minimizes manufacturing effects, improving the sustainability of the life cycle’s beginning. Experts should now focus on developing effective end-of-life processes to reduce landfill pollution.
Voting with our money
MacMillan and List’s development inspired other environmental engineers and scientists to search for efficient recycling techniques. The rare metals and toxic elements in panels limit their compatibility with conventional recycling practices. Chemicals may leak out of the devices when they reach landfills, creating ecological degradation.
The organocatalysts minimize toxic elements within solar panels, reducing end-of-life pollution. Professionals may continue increasing the sustainability of solar panel recycling by enhancing a device’s longevity, limiting the need for processing. They can additionally find ways to refurbish panels instead of transporting them to a recycling facility.
We can all help improve the renewable energy sector’s sustainability by demanding eco-friendly production and recycling processes. We can help alter industrial eco-consciousness levels by purchasing from low-emission manufacturers over their environmentally degrading competitors.
Over time, voting with our money can effectively promote sustainable changes.