Researchers at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) have developed a robotic disassembly system for used lithium-ion batteries from electric vehicles.
The robots accelerate disassembly and make the process of breaking any type of battery stack safer for workers, while increasing throughput.
ORNL project team member Jonathan Harter estimates the automated system could handle 100 or more battery stacks in the time it takes to disassemble 12 by hand.
The system breaks down the battery stack to sections, then to modules, then to cells.
ORNL has developed other processes to break down those cells to the pouch/anode/cathode/separator components. They have also developed control technologies to repurpose spent EV batteries for grid energy storage.
Economically feasible recyling
Harter believes that to make recycling more economically feasible, it must be done at high throughput and be flexible enough to process multiple consumer products in a single facility.
He said: “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.”
The robots remove bolts and other housing regardless of any remaining charge, whereas human operators must undertake lengthy processes to discharge used batteries before breaking them down manually.
The automated system was developed as part of DOE’s Critical Materials Institute (CMI).
It can be programmed to access the individual battery modules for refurbishment or reuse as stationary energy storage, or the batteries can be taken down to the cell level for separation and materials recovery.
The work builds on expertise developed in previous ORNL projects for the CMI that focused on robotic disassembly of hard drives for recovery of rare-earth magnets.
Engineers also proved that those magnets can be directly reused in electric motors.
The researchers follow the same protocol each time: breakdown the used component manually and collect data on that process to create the robotic tools and controls needed to drive an automated system.
The next step could be building the process up to commercial scale, and applying the same kind of disassembly system to electric vehicle drive trains for recovery of materials such as rare earth magnets, copper, steel and intact power electronics.
The system was developed and demonstrated at ORNL’s Grid Research Integration and Deployment Center.