DoE lab develops robot to speed up recycling of EV batteries

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The US Department of Energy (DoE) through the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) has developed a solution to speed up the processes involved in the recycling of electric vehicle (EV) batteries.

Researchers at the national lab have developed a robot for disassembling used EV battery packs. In addition to increasing the pace of removing the batteries from EVs, the robot makes the process safer for workers by reducing their exposure to toxic chemicals and high power levels inside batteries.

The robot at ORNL’s Grid Research Integration and Deployment Center removes bolts and other housing regardless of any remaining charge, whereas human operators must undertake an exacting, lengthy process to discharge used batteries before breaking them down manually.

The automated system is flexible and can be used to fit various EV battery packs.

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The technology has been developed as part of the DOE’s Critical Materials Institute (CMI). Previously, the DoE used the robot concept for disassembling of hard drives for the recovery of rare-earth magnets.

Tim McIntyre, a principal investigator in the electrification and energy infrastructures division at ORNL, said: “Only a small percentage of lithium-ion vehicle batteries are recycled today, and the majority of the processes used to do so are not automated.”

“With our system, when the robot picks up the battery pack and puts it on the production line, it marks the last time a human will touch it until it’s in pieces and parts.”

EV use is expected to expand in the next 20 years as part of efforts to decarbonise the transport system. The increase in EV use will also mean more batteries will need to be recycled to prevent environmental degradation that can be caused by battery waste and increased mining in search of minerals for the production of new batteries.

As such automation will be critical to simplify and speed up the process.

ORNL project team member Jonathan Harter, adds: “Industry is not limited on the amount of batteries they can take into this process. There is a significant backlog already accumulated. The limiting factor is the time it takes to perform the electrical discharge and perform disassembly manually.

“In the time it takes in some processes to disassemble 12 battery stacks by hand, the automated system could handle 100 or more.”

CMI Director Tom Lograsso, reiterates: “Automatic disassembly of components containing critical materials not only eliminates labor-intensive manual disassembly, but provides for an efficient process to separate the components into higher value streams where the critical materials are concentrated into individual feedstocks for recycle processing.

“This added value is an important part of establishing an economically viable process.”

ORNL has plans to commercialise the technology and to apply it to disassemble electric vehicle drive trains for recovery of materials such as rare earth magnets, copper, steel and intact power electronics.

Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory developed a robotic disassembly system for used electric vehicle batteries to make the process safer, more efficient and less costly. Credit: Jenny Woodbery/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy