This study identifies unstable and soluble layers in commercial photovoltaic modules during 1.5 year long-term leaching. Our experiments cover modules from all major photovoltaic technologies containing solar cells from crystalline silicon (c-Si), amorphous silicon (a-Si), cadmium telluride (CdTe), and copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS). These technologies cover more than 99.9% of the world market. We cut out module pieces of 5 × 5 cm
in size from these modules and leached them in water-based solutions with pH 4, pH 7, and pH 11, in order to simulate different environmental conditions. Unstable layers open penetration paths for water-based solutions; finally, the leaching results in delamination. In CdTe containing module pieces, the CdTe itself and the back contact are unstable and highly soluble. In CIGS containing module pieces, all of the module layers are more or less soluble. In the case of c-Si module pieces, the cells’ aluminum back contact is unstable. Module pieces from a-Si technology also show a soluble back contact. Long-term leaching leads to delamination in all kinds of module pieces; delamination depends strongly on the pH value of the solutions. For low pH-values, the time dependent leaching is well described by an exponential saturation behavior and a leaching time constant. The time constant depends on the pH, as well as on accelerating conditions such as increased temperature and/or agitation. Our long-term experiments clearly demonstrate that it is possible to leach out all, or at least a large amount, of the (toxic) elements from the photovoltaic modules. It is therefore not sufficient to carry out experiments just over 24 h and to conclude on the stability and environmental impact of photovoltaic modules.
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