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Metallurgical infrastructure and technology criticality: the link between photovoltaics, sustainability, and the metals industry


  • Neill Bartie

    (Technische Universität Braunschweig
    Technical University of Munich)

  • Lucero Cobos-Becerra

    (Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin für Materialien und Energie)

  • Magnus Fröhling

    (Technical University of Munich)

  • Rutger Schlatmann

    (Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin für Materialien und Energie)

  • Markus Reuter



Various high-purity metals endow renewable energy technologies with specific functionalities. These become heavily intertwined in products, complicating end-of-life treatment. To counteract downcycling and resource depletion, maximising both quantities and qualities of materials recovered during production and recycling processes should be prioritised in the pursuit of sustainable circular economy. To do this well requires metallurgical infrastructure systems that maximise resource efficiency.To illustrate the concept, digital twins of two photovoltaic (PV) module technologies were created using process simulation. The models comprise integrated metallurgical systems that produce, among others, cadmium, tellurium, zinc, copper, and silicon, all of which are required for PV modules. System-wide resource efficiency, environmental impacts, and technoeconomic performance were assessed using exergy analysis, life cycle assessment, and cost models, respectively. High-detail simulation of complete life cycles allows for the system-wide effects of various production, recycling, and residue exchange scenarios to be evaluated to maximise overall sustainability and simplify the distribution of impacts in multiple-output production systems. This paper expands on previous studies and demonstrates the key importance of metallurgy in achieving Circular Economy, not only by means of reactors, but via systems and complete supply chains—not only the criticality of elements, but also the criticality of available metallurgical processing and other infrastructure in the supply chain should be addressed. The important role of energy grid compositions, and the resulting location-based variations in supply chain footprints, in maximising energy output per unit of embodied carbon footprint for complete systems is highlighted.

Suggested Citation

  • Neill Bartie & Lucero Cobos-Becerra & Magnus Fröhling & Rutger Schlatmann & Markus Reuter, 2022. "Metallurgical infrastructure and technology criticality: the link between photovoltaics, sustainability, and the metals industry," Mineral Economics, Springer;Raw Materials Group (RMG);Luleå University of Technology, vol. 35(3), pages 503-519, December.
  • Handle: RePEc:spr:minecn:v:35:y:2022:i:3:d:10.1007_s13563-022-00313-7
    DOI: 10.1007/s13563-022-00313-7

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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Kristia Kristia & Mohammad Fazle Rabbi, 2023. "Exploring the Synergy of Renewable Energy in the Circular Economy Framework: A Bibliometric Study," Sustainability, MDPI, vol. 15(17), pages 1-27, September.
    2. Aşkın, Asmin & Kılkış, Şiir & Akınoğlu, Bülent Gültekin, 2023. "Recycling photovoltaic modules within a circular economy approach and a snapshot for Türkiye," Renewable Energy, Elsevier, vol. 208(C), pages 583-596.

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