Scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory developed a robotic system that automates the disassembly of discarded electric vehicle batteries, making the process faster and safer, a report from New Atlas explains.
Lithium-ion batteries are seen by many as a stain on the electric vehicle (EV) industry's otherwise green credentials, due in large part to the mining of the nickel and cobalt needed to make the power systems.
That's why improving the battery recycling process for these batteries is high on the priority list for many firms. Tesla, for example, recently announced that it can now recycle up to 92 percent of battery cell materials at its Gigafactory facility in Texas.
Safer, faster EV battery recycling
The traditional method for battery recycling to date sees human workers dismantle each battery by hand. It is a slow, cumbersome task, and since it requires the battery cells to be discharged, it can expose workers to dangerous levels of toxic chemicals as well as power levels of up to 900 volts. In order to develop their new, safer, and more efficient process, the team of researchers from Oak Ridge National Laboratory made their own version of a robot that was built to extract rare-earth magnets from old hard drives. Their new machine is capable of disassembling any type of battery stack by unscrewing bolts and removing the housing, even when the battery has a remaining charge.
Once the casing is removed, the automated machine disassembles the battery down to its cell level, removing and recovering materials such as lithium, cobalt, and metal foils. It can also extract single battery modules for reuse in separate energy storage systems. The team says that its system can disassemble more than 100 battery stacks in the time a human worker would need to disassemble 12. The video below gives a glimpse of the automated recycling process.
Closing the loop on EV batteries
The team says it is in the process of testing the automated system with a view to eventually deploying it at a commercial scale. They also believe the machine could eventually be used to also extract metals from electric vehicle drivetrains, which also require valuable materials.
"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," team member Tom Lograsso explained in a press statement. "This added value is an important part of establishing an economically viable process."
As a recent IVL report explains, lithium-ion battery production emits between 61-106 kilos of carbon dioxide equivalents per kilowatt-hour battery capacity produced. That's why new processes are essential for tackling the enormous growing battery recycling backlog and mining used batteries for materials that can be efficiently reused today in a bid to close the loop and give electric vehicles a sustainability boost as internal combustion vehicles are gradually phased out worldwide.