ORNL researchers and EV BatteriesResearchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory have developed a robotic disassembly system for spent electric vehicle battery packs to recycle and reuse critical materials safely and efficiently while reducing toxic waste.
ORNL researchers and EV BatteriesOnly a small percentage of lithium-ion vehicle batteries are recycled today, and the majority of the processes used to do so are not automated, said Tim McIntyre, principal investigator in ORNL’s Electrification and Energy Infrastructures Division.
ORNL researchers and EV BatteriesLimiting human interaction is important for both safety and efficiency. The robots swiftly remove 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. Automated disassembly reduces human exposure to toxic chemicals found inside the batteries and high power levels that are approaching the 900-volt level in some newer vehicles. The automated system developed as part of DOE’s Critical Materials Institute, or CMI, can be easily reconfigured to any type of battery stack. It can be programmed to access just the individual battery modules for refurbishment or reuse as stationary energy storage, or the batteries can be taken apart down to the cell level for separation and materials recovery.
ORNL researchers and EV BatteriesThe 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. Automatic disassembly of components containing critical materials eliminates labor-intensive manual disassembly and provides for an efficient process to separate the components into higher value streams where the critical materials are concentrated into individual feedstocks for recycling processing. This added value is an important part of establishing an economically viable process—CMI Director Tom Lograsso
ORNL researchers and EV BatteriesThe researchers follow the same protocol each time: breaking down the used component manually and collecting data on that process to create the robotic tools and controls needed to drive an automated system, said ORNL project team member Jonathan Harter. The industry is not limited on the number of batteries they can take into this process. There is a significant backlog already accumulated.
ORNL researchers and EV BatteriesThe next step could be building the process up to a commercial scale, and McIntyre’s team also sees opportunities to apply the same disassembly system to electric vehicle drive trains for recovery of materials such as rare earth magnets and copper, steel, and intact power electronics. 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, Harter said.
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