A Critical Review of the Circular Economy for Lithium-Ion Batteries and Photovoltaic Modules: Status, Challenges, and Opportunities

Garvin Heath, Dwarak Ravikumar, Brianna Hansen, Elaine Kupets

Research output: NRELPresentation


To meet net-zero emissions and cost targets for power production, recent analysis indicates that photovoltaic (PV) capacity in the United States could exceed 1 TW by 2050 alongside comparable levels of energy storage capacity, mostly from batteries. For comparison, the total U.S. utility-scale power capacity from all energy sources in 2020 was 1.2 TW (EIA 2022), of which solar satisfied approximately 3% (DOE 2021). With such massive scales of deployment, questions have arisen regarding issues of material supply for manufacturing, end-of-life management of technologies, environmental impacts across the life cycle, and economic costs to both individual consumers and society at large. A set of solutions to address these issues center on the development of a circular economy - shifting from a take-make-waste linear economic model to one that retains the value of materials and products as long as possible, recovering materials at end of life to recirculate back into the economy. With limited global experience, scholars and practitioners have begun to investigate circular economy pathways, focusing on applying novel technologies and analytical methods to fast-growing sectors like renewable energy. This critical review aims to synthesize the growing literature to identify key insights, gaps, and opportunities for research and implementation of a circular economy for two of the leading technologies that enable the transition to a renewable energy economy: solar PV and lithium-ion batteries (LIBs). We apply state-of-the-science systematic literature review procedures to critically analyze over 3,000 publications on the circular economy of solar PV and LIBs, categorizing those that pass a series of objective screens in ways that can illuminate the current state of the art, highlight existing impediments to a circular economy, and recommend future technological and analytical research. We conclude that while neither PV nor LIB industries have reached a circular economy, they are both on a path towards increased circularity. Based on our assessment of the state of current literature and scientific understanding, we recommend research move beyond its prior emphasis on recycling technology development to more comprehensively investigate other CE strategies, more holistically consider economic, environmental and policy aspects of CE strategies, increase leveraging of digital information systems that can support acceleration towards a CE, and to continue to study CE-related aspects of LIB and PV markets.
Original languageAmerican English
Number of pages44
StatePublished - 2022

Publication series

NamePresented at the Air & Waste Management Association (A&WMA) Conference, 27-30 June 2022, San Francisco, California

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/PR-6A20-83294


  • circular economy
  • PV
  • recycling
  • reuse


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