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Scaling CdTe Solar: Life Cycle Assessment of Te Byproducts from Cu Extraction

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Life cycle assessment (LCA) is increasingly identified as the proper tool/framework for performing cradle to grave analysis of a product, technology, or supply chain. LCA proceeds by comparing the materials

Life cycle assessment (LCA) is increasingly identified as the proper tool/framework for performing cradle to grave analysis of a product, technology, or supply chain. LCA proceeds by comparing the materials and energy needed for materials extraction, benefaction, and end-of-life management, in addition to the actual lifetime of the product. This type of analysis is commonly used to evaluate forms of renewable energy to ensure that we don't harm the environment in the name of saving it. For instance, LCA for photovoltaic (PV) technologies can be used to evaluate the environmental impacts. CdTe thin film solar cells rely on cadmium and tellurium metals which are produced as by-products in the refining of zinc and copper ore, respectively. In order to understand the environmental burdens of tellurium, it is useful to explore the extraction and refining process of copper. Copper can be refined using either a hydrometallurgical or pyrometallurgical process. I conducted a comparison of these two methods to determine the environmental impacts, the chemical reactions which take place, the energy requirements, and the extraction costs of each. I then looked into the extraction of tellurium from anode slime produced in the pyrometallurgical process and determined the energy requirements. I connected this to the production of CdTe and the power produced from a CdTe module, and analyzed the production cost of CdTe modules under increasing tellurium prices. It was concluded that tellurium production will be limited by increasing hydrometallurgical extraction of copper. Additionally, tellurium scarcity will not provide a physical constraint to CdTe commercial expansion; however it could affect the price reduction goals.

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  • 2013-05