New solar panels could come in the form of old car batteries, which are a cheaper and more efficient alternative.

  Photo Credit: MIT

Photo Credit: MIT

Lead-acid car batteries aren't great for the environment, but their continued use comes with a few benefits. Manufacturers are able to recycle the lead to use in newer batteries, which helps to keep these pollutants out of the environment. However, these batteries are starting to be replaced with more efficient technology, which means there needs to be a new way to use the lead from the old batteries. Engineers at MIT are suggesting this lead can be recycled to make solar panels that are inexpensive and long-lasting. 

A study published in Energy and Environmental Science says that recycled lead specifically can be used to build solar cells. This would help prevent additional lead from being added to the environment, and prevent existing lead from old car batteries from being placed in landfills. Once the lead is entered into the production process, it could be recycled into new solar cells as time goes on, stopping the material from entering the environment in the same way car manufacturers did. 

Each solar cell would need about half a micrometer thick of a compound called perovskite, which means the lead from one car battery could make enough solar panels to power 30 households. These cells are also cheaper than silicon-based cells and are easier to produce. 

“They’re definitely cheaper,” said Angela Belcher, a professor of energy at MIT and co-author of the study, as the Washington Post reports. "And the efficiencies right now are at almost 20 percent, which is competing with the 20 to 25 percent in silicon.” 

She adds that it will only be a couple of years until the lead-based solar cells reach single-digit efficiency. The new process also means not having to work at high temperatures, and engineers don't need to use the specialized equipment needed in silicon-based solar cells. 

“This isn’t perfect,” Belcher said. “It’s very exciting, and lots of people are really pushing the edge of the technology, but it’s also new. Silicon has been around for a long time, and it’s known to work. But we’re excited about this, because we think it could be a competitor that’s easy to process, has rapidly increasing efficiency, and can be made in an environmentally friendly way.”

See how the process works in the video below: