When Light is Dark: Waste from Key Solar Cell Ingredient Damages Chinese Environment
China is suffering from many environmental disasters in its rush to industrialize, but some of its environmental problems are being addressed. Which is leading the race, industrialization or the environment? I provide some examples that contrast environmental practices in China and fully-industrialized nations, including a recent revelation from The Washington Post about the Chinese industrial plants that supply “polysilicon” for solar panels.
I once worked with industry insiders who had visited a Chinese chemical plant. They told a frightening story in which the chemical plant manager acted essentially like a Warlord and clearly made things dangerous for local villagers, especially those who might protest toxic waste dumping or other questionable activities by the plant. It was related to me that jail, or worse, might be the consequence of any protests, and the visit was, in many ways, a disturbing experience for these Western scientists and engineers.
More recent stories in the press, including some discussed on this blog, have continued to add to concerns about China’s environmental practices, even though there are signs that, at least in some cases, official or corporate protection of the environment is improving in China. However, I was also told during a recent interview with noted Chinese author Qiu Xiaolong that some restaurants in China are now claiming to soak live fish and sea food in “clean water” for several days to wash out toxic chemicals. This is not a technique that I would expect to be very successful. In fact, the title of this article is a reference to the powerful novel about Chinese corruption written by Qiu Xiaolong, When Red is Black.
Now there are revelations from reporter Ariana Eunjung Cha and the Washington Post, published March 9th, 2008: found here or at Solar Energy Firms Leave Waste Behind in China (one or both of these links should work). From Ms. Cha, we learn about the Chinese response to the world’s hunger for polysilicon, or polycrystalline silicon, a material used to make most current solar panels* and whose price has risen more than 10-fold in the past five years. The rush to meet market demands has led to many new polysilicon plants being built in China. One such plant, which belongs to Luoyang Zhonggui High-Technology Co. and is “located in the central plains of Henan Province near the Yellow River,” is a focus of the Washington Post article.
The result of all these new polysilicon plants in China, in addition to supplying the growing worldwide need for solar panels, is a set of serious environmental problems, mainly for poor Chinese villagers who populate the rural areas where Chinese chemical plants spring up. These (and other Chinese chemical plants) plants are typically located outside normal tourist routes, and operate outside the law, or outside the stated laws and policies of the Chinese National Government. In fact, in true Warlord fashion, chemical plant managers are often synonymous with local law.
The specific problem with polysilicon manufacture is the byproduct SiCl4 (silicon tetrachloride) which can be recycled and processed safely, as is done by “developed nations.” Silicon tetrachloride is both used and generated in the process of refining silicon to high purity. When simply dumped in the countryside, silicon tetrachloride releases highly-toxic, corrosive hydrochloric acid, and generates a fine powder containing silicon dioxide, the same material that sand is composed of, though the fine nature of the powder allows in to be inhaled or ingested. From the Washington Post article:
“The land where you dump or bury (silicon tetrachloride) will be infertile. No grass or trees will grow in the place. . . . It is like dynamite — it is poisonous, it is polluting. Human beings can never touch it,” said Ren Bingyan, a professor at the School of Material Sciences at Hebei Industrial University.
Because of the environmental hazard, polysilicon companies in the developed world recycle the (silicon tetrachloride), putting it back into the production process. But the high investment costs and time, not to mention the enormous energy consumption required for heating the substance to more than 1800 degrees Fahrenheit for the recycling, have discouraged many factories in China from doing the same.
An independent, nationally accredited laboratory analyzed a sample of dirt from the dump site near the Luoyang Zhonggui plant at the request of The Washington Post. The tests show high concentrations of chlorine and hydrochloric acid, which can result from the breakdown of silicon tetrachloride and do not exist naturally in soil. “Crops cannot grow on this, and it is not suitable for people to live nearby,” said Li Xiaoping, deputy director of the Shanghai Academy of Environmental Sciences.””
Even though initial capital cost of silicon tetrachloride recycling facilities is high the operating costs are also high, I believe that it would be wrong to think that funds aren’t available in China to implement this waste processing technology, it is simply a question of priorities (and greed). In fact, some Chinese are becoming extraordinarily wealthy from polysilicon companies, and the company focused on by the Post‘s article, Louyang Zhonggui, as reported by Ms. Cha,
“is a key supplier to Suntech Power Holdings, a solar panel company whose founder Shi Zhengrong recently topped the list of the richest people in China.”
Nevertheless, the arrogance displayed by Luoyang Zhonggui officials is unfortunately all too familiar to those who follow civil rights or environmentalism in China, or who follow the continuing struggle to introduce tighter environmental controls to the United States over the past 50 years:
“Wang Hailong, secretary of the board of directors for Luoyang Zhonggui, said it is “impossible” to think that the company would dump large amounts of waste into a residential area. “Some of the villagers did not tell the truth,” he said.”
Apparently even the impossible is commonplace in China. Ms. Cha and the Washington Post are to be congratulated for their investigative field work. In fact, the situation is simply terrible:
“Each night, villagers said, the factory’s chimneys released a loud whoosh of acrid air that stung their eyes and made it hard to breath. “It’s poison air. Sometimes it gets so bad you can’t sit outside. You have to close all the doors and windows,” said Qiao Shi Peng, 28, a truck driver who said he worries about his 1-year-old son’s health.
The villagers said most obvious evidence of the pollution is the dumping, up to 10 times a day, of the liquid waste into what was formerly a grassy field. Eventually, the whole area turned white, like snow.”
As I hope I’ve made clear, the disregard for human safety and environmental health exhibited by Luoyang Zhonggui and numerous other Chinese companies is not unique to China. In the US, we’ve seen this attitude from many sources over the years, including mining companies and various energy and chemical producers (please ask if you would like examples, or read my back pages). In Europe, similar problems also are well documented. However, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the European Union, and growing public awareness (dating back to publication of Rachel Carson‘s Silent Spring) have eliminated, remediated and prevented many environmental problems (even if there are still areas that badly need intervention or need the government to enforce its own laws and regulations).
So, should China be allowed to poison its own people and land just the way other countries did during the rise of industrialism? Of course, outsiders have little influence on internal Chinese policies, even with the so-called pressure of the Olympic Games facing China now. However, that doesn’t mean we should ignore the problems. While developed nations still have a great deal of work to do at home, and must remain vigilant in protecting the environment, it is a tragedy for the Chinese people that their country is unwilling to learn much from the industrial history of more-industrialized nations.
In the meantime, there is new solar panel technology that doesn’t require polysilicon, for example “solar paint” developed by Nanosolar and “solar ink” recently described by Konarka. Nanosolar’s solar technology is reportedly more efficient than coal at generating electricity. We can hope that this new technology will continue to make inroads into the marketplace and will drive the construction of greener manufacturing facilities. Given the growing demand for green electricity from solar power, such advances can’t come soon enough.
James K. Bashkin © 2008
*Related links: Lifecycle Assessment of Crystalline Photovoltaics by Niels Jungbluth (note this links to a PDF!); for more background on polysilicon fabrication and related processes, see The Handbook of Silicon Semiconductor Technology, W. C. O’Mara, R. B. Herring, L. P Hunt eds., Pub.: William Andrew, Inc. (Noyes Data Corporation/Noyes Publications), 1990, 795pp, Chapter 2, “Polysilicon Preparation” by L. C. Rogers, p 33ff. Also see Wacker Polysilicon, the History of the Future, available as a 13-page PDF or as a (less readable) web page.
A slightly different version of this article was published earlier today (3/11/08) by the author under a nonexclusive license at BlogCritics Magazine: When Light is Dark: Waste from Key Solar Cell Ingredient Damages Chinese Environment. I am grateful to their editors for help.
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