Sustainability students bring dead solar panels back to life
By Blaine Friedlander, Cornell Chronicle
Students are using polyurethane, resin, epoxy – and gallons of wit – to give new life to cracked, broken and nonworking solar panels.
“We’re refurbishing solar panels and that has probably never been taught in class, as far as we know,” said Anant Gupta ’25, leader of the Cornell University Sustainability Design (CUSD) Solar Panel Reboot team. “By giving these panels a second life, we’re learning how to solve problems that don’t have a definite solution.”
In 2019, Tobias Hanrath, the Marjorie L. Hart ’50 Professor in Engineering at the Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, received 1,200 damaged solar panels from the installers of a utility scale solar farm near Ithaca.
Hanrath, in turn, gave the panels to the CUSD group and asked them to design, implement and test refurbishing methods – and evaluate panel durability. The living-laboratory, circular-economy project paused during the pandemic, but students returned to the panel problem when the university reopened.
In addition to Gupta, the current team members include master’s degree students Sarah Alruwaily and Saikant Kamble; and undergraduates En Lo ’25 and Michelle Yang ’26.
In their Ward Laboratory setup, an extra space to conduct work adjacent to the Engineering Quad, the students test the panels using a halogen light array system, originally built by the Cornell chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World. The apparatus imitates the sun. The students – who hope to create a handbook on the process – test each solar panel’s performance and measure power output.
“In class, you can always look in the textbook and find an answer. You get your exam back and there’s a solution key,” Gupta said. “As we work through problems on these broken solar panels, there’s no one to say that’s right or that’s wrong. We’ve encountered weird problems, that if you look online, you won’t find an answer. We figure it out for ourselves and I think that’s valuable.”
To fix damaged glass, for example, they put the panel on a flat surface and use liquid resin to repair it. That’s logical. The setback: the resin does not settle evenly. It bunches up and wrinkles. For now, the students applied thinner coats – which has worked to some extent.
Another big issue: fast degradation when the panels are not in use. The students believe that deterioration occurs in each panel’s junction box system – the wires that connect panels to each other.
“Every time we test the panels, they degrade,” Gupta said. “We’re sort of sapping a little bit of life out of them, because we’re disconnecting and connecting, but we’re trying to figure out how to make sure our power data results are reliable.”
One new panel’s output is about 400 watts per hour. After the reboot team finishes, the students aim to achieve an output of 150 watts.
Some of the renewed panels have gone to the Ithaca Re-Use Center, where they have found new homes.
In fact, the group has begun talking with local farmers to sell them refurbished panels for production agriculture needs – such as powering a small irrigation system, a water pump, a fan or a few barn lights – where a full-power electric system isn’t needed.
“We’ve met with farmers and I was amazed by how much a refurbished solar panel can help them,” Alruwaily said. “It had never crossed my mind that a repaired item like a solar panel can do that. It was a proverbial light-bulb moment for me.”
Gupta said the group aims to connect further with the local community and wishes to find more opportunities for refurbished panels.
For Yang, the team’s youngest member, this was an opportunity to work and absorb. “Refurbishing panels feels very fresh,” she said. “You go to the Ward lab and put on gloves, wash down the panels, refurbish them and conduct testing. We’re learning firsthand about energy.”