Understanding the economic and environmental...

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The overarching goal of this project is to generate knowledge needed for a new life cycle assessment (LCA) framework that is capable of predicting potential economic and environmental consequences due to the wide deployment of thin film solar photovoltaics (PV). Thin film solar cells are gaining considerable market share against silicon wafer based panels due to lower costs but comparable energy efficiency. However, a closer examination from a life cycle perspective reveals that they face some unique challenges related to sustainability. Manufacturing of thin film solar cells relies on some key materials such as cadmium, tellurium, indium, gallium, and selenium, which are of limited supply and are currently being used by electronics and other industries. Thin film PV, as an emerging application, will compete for these key materials and could disrupt the supply-demand balance. This will in turn lead to market volatility and affect manufacturing cost of thin film PVs. In addition, increasing demand in these raw materials drives up prices which justify the utilization of low grade ores. This will in turn change the environmental profiles of key materials consumed in thin film PV manufacturing. This research aims at predicting the economic and environmental consequences of this competition for materials by combining high resolution partial equilibrium (PE) models and life cycle inventory modeling. Five research tasks will be performed: 1) identifying critical PV materials and industrial sectors potentially affected, 2) developing PE models to quantify supply and demand evolution of critical PV materials, 3) quantifying changing environmental profiles of critical PV materials, 4) analyzing effect of uncertainties on model outputs; and 5) utilizing the modeling framework for policy evaluation. LCA studies on thin film PVs to date are mostly attributional and have largely ignored the ripple effects in affected industrial/economic sectors. This project aims at filling this critical knowledge gap by developing a new consequential LCA framework. This research will quantify the dynamic flows of key energy metals/materials among competing sectors. If successful, the project will advance understanding and provide a more accurate picture of the life cycle environmental footprints of thin film PVs. This project brings together an LCA specialist (Zhao) and an energy economist (Steinbuks). The LCA tool to be developed has the potential to aid engineers in the design of more environmentally preferable thin film PV technologies. It could also facilitate the development of public policy to expedite the penetration of solar energy while minimizing undesirable environmental impacts. These in combination may contribute to the greening of electricity generation in the U.S. while avoiding unexpected environmental consequences associated with the transition. The research findings will be infused into multiple courses at Purdue, increasing the amount of sustainability-related educational material in these curricula and encouraging engineering students to actively engage in sustainability engineering and public policy after graduation. During this project, the PI will continue his efforts on recruiting students whose ethnicities are traditionally under-represented in engineering. To attract more students from under-represented groups to research and graduate study, all undergraduate students will document their daily experience on social media (e.g. facebook, twitter, and google+). To reach an even broader audience, all the findings, case studies, and teaching material will all be made available on Purdue's Repository for Research Data.


The Purdue University Research Repository (PURR) is a university core research facility provided by the Purdue University Libraries, the Office of the Executive Vice President for Research and Partnerships, and Information Technology at Purdue (ITaP).