This Spartan engineer analyzes how we manufacture, implement and dispose of solar cells to ensure consumers end up with the most durable product.
Michigan State University Annick AnctilThe goal of may seem surprising, even counterintuitive. After all, solar power is sustainable, so by definition it’s green, isn’t it?
“Solar energy is green, but it’s not entirely green,” says Anctil, associate professor at Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “The ultimate goal of this project is to make solar energy even greener. “
It turns out that not all solar panels are created equal, and installing solar panels is not a universal solution. Some signs use limited resources. Others could leach dangerous chemicals into the environment. And some are better suited to certain places than others.
“If you take a solar panel and install it in Michigan, then install the same type in Arizona, they won’t work the same way,” says Anctil. “They won’t have the same environmental benefits.
With the support of a National Science Foundation CAREER Award 2021, Anctil and his team show how different solar panels affect society and the environment. By auditing the lifecycle of different solar technologies – from manufacturing to installation, operation and ultimately disposal – the team strives to educate consumers, businesses and policy makers wishing to make the most of solar energy.
“Education is not just what I do in the classroom. I can work with the public and get all of this information out, ”says Anctil, who works with the Michigan Institute for Energy Innovation and Hemlock Semiconductor of Michigan, the largest producer of silicon in the United States. It helps him connect directly with the people who make and install solar power systems – and who are looking to do so in a more sustainable way.
“I’m a researcher who enjoys working with people and being connected,” she says. “A lot of my research questions are guided by the questions I hear asked. “
As a researcher, Anctil has always been interested in renewable energies. She started studying solar technologies as a graduate student, undertaking projects to increase the efficiency of solar cells. But she realized that when the focus is on making the best solar cell possible, researchers may not be fully aware of the consequences of their choices.
“If you get better performance from the solar cell, but it uses a rare or toxic material, you haven’t necessarily done anything better,” she says. “The solar cell may be working better, but you also created a new problem. “
For example, silicon solar cells are made from sand, which is much rarer than many people realize. Solar cells can also be made using dangerous chemicals. It is therefore also important to understand what happens to solar cells and their end-of-life contents, especially if the panels are not covered by take-back or recycling programs.
This is why Anctil strives to determine the durability of a given solar cell, across the many phases of its life cycle. And MSU has proven to be a place that values this holistic thinking. “At MSU there is a lot of interest in sustainability,” says Anctil. “And it’s not just in one department, it’s across the university.”
Note: Annick Anctil is a faculty member of the College of Engineering.