A Bumpy Road to Solar Energy: China’s Polysilicon Manufacturer Dumping Toxic Material

Seattle Times: Luoyang Zhonggui High-Technology manufactures polysilicon for use in solar cells. There are high hopes all over the world for solar energy to heat water and generate electricity. China has high hopes too. Eager to supply the growing demand of polysilicon, 20 Chinese companies are poised to manufacture 80,000 to 100,000 tons of polysilicon, which is significantly more than the 40,000 tons manufactured in the entire world today.

One of those companies is Luoyang Zhonggui High-Technology, which is located in the central plains of Henan Province near the Yellow River. Luoyang Zhonggui is slated to manufacture 3000 tons of polysilicon this year (compared to just 300 tons in 2007) catapulting to the top in China and is a key supplier to Suntech Power Holdings. Suntech Power Holdings was founded by Shi Zhengrong, who is the richest person in China. To build a polysilicon plant and begin manufacturing, it typically takes two years; Chinese companies are attempting to do it in just one year. Prices have sky-rocketed too from just $20/kg to $300/kg in five years.

For nine months, dump trucks from Luoyang’s factory have dumped buckets of bubbling white liquid onto the grounds between the cornfields and the primary-school playground. The bubbling white liquid is silicon tetrachloride, a highly toxic substance. Four tons of silicon tetrachloride liquid waste is generated for every ton of polysilicon manufactured. Silicon tetrachloride breaks down into chlorine and hydrochloric acid. Plants cannot grow and the land becomes unsuitable for people to live in. In the developed world, silicon tetrachloride is recycled and returned to the manufacturing process, but the process requires expensive equipment, enormous energy and time. Silicon tetrachloride must be heated to more than 1800-degrees Fahrenheit to be recycled. In a land where all go to procure cheap components and labor, companies like Luoyang do not install recycling equipment and technology.

According to Pro-EnerTech, a polysilicon research firm based in Shanghai, the Chinese government is overlooking the problem due to the severe shortage of polysilicon. From two years ago, Chinese plants have been stockpiling silicon tetrachloride hoping they will find a way to dispose of it later. Others such as Luoyang Zhonggui are simply dumping them anywhere and saving millions of dollars in the process. The cost of manufacturing a ton of polysilicon with environmental protection technology is about $84,500. By simply dumping poisonous gas into the air and silicon tetrachloride in the ground, the Chinese companies can manufacture a ton at only $21,000 to $56,000 per ton of polysilicon. This is not surprising as Chinese manufacturers have continued to put cost reduction ahead of environmental concerns.

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