The UK is committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050. One of the key challenges to meeting this target is the transition to EVs. EVs are powered by lithium-ion batteries, which contain critical materials such as lithium, nickel, and cobalt. These materials are limited in supply and have a high environmental impact to extract. The UK currently does not have the capacity to recycle EV batteries at scale. This means that batteries are often sent to landfill, where they can release harmful pollutants into the environment.
I, Dr. Alireza Rastegarpanah, as the co-founder of the National Sustainable Robotic Test-Bed at Birmingham Energy Innovation Centre (NSRC-BEIC), am dedicated to the development of robotic systems for automating the testing, disassembly, and sorting of EV batteries. This initiative aims to enhance the efficiency and sustainability of battery recycling processes. Located at the Tyseley Energy Park, NSRC-BEIC benefits from its proximity to recycling industries such as Veolia and HYPROMAG. This proximity enables fruitful collaborations with these industries to foster the development of novel technologies for EV battery recycling.
Collaborating with the team, I have successfully developed a range of innovative robotic systems tailored for battery recycling. These advancements play a crucial role in assisting the United Kingdom in achieving its net zero emissions target and reducing the environmental impact associated with EV batteries.
Reuse is a prerequisite for recycling
For sure, reusing end-of-life batteries is a prerequisite for recycling them. Sometimes, only one or a few battery modules reach their end-of-life (EoL), and by simply replacing these EoL battery modules, we can recover the entire battery pack. However, this requires sophisticated testing machines capable of remotely and safely testing the batteries and identifying the EoL modules within the battery pack. But EoL batteries are not the sole source of the challenge; end users and insurance companies also face a lack of safe testing infrastructure to identify faulty EV battery modules or cells. Insurance companies have to bear significant losses as they are unable to test EV batteries safely, leading them to send these batteries directly to salvage centres for shredding. Based on the regulations of some insurance companies, even minor dents, scratches, or deformations on the battery pack are considered as indications of damaged batteries, although these visual signs may not necessarily indicate actual damage. To overcome this challenge, we at the University of Birmingham have proposed a telerobotic system for safely and remotely testing EV batteries. With this system, even non-robotic experts can easily and safely perform the testing process efficiently.
The challenges of EV battery recycling
I believe there are a number of challenges to automating the disassembly of EV batteries. One challenge is the lack of standardisation in battery design. This means that each battery pack is unique, which makes it difficult to develop robots that can disassemble them all. Another challenge is the safety concerns associated with EV batteries. These batteries contain a lot of energy, and if they are not handled properly, they can pose a fire or explosion hazard. This makes it difficult to automate the disassembly process without putting workers at risk.
One of the solutions to overcome the challenge of diversity in design is the development of digital passports for EV batteries. I, as a co-investigator of the €5.5 million EU REBELION project, aim to utilise digital passports and create digital twins to address this challenge. Digital passports would be highly valuable for automated testing and disassembly processes. They would include crucial information such as the degradation level of battery modules, whether the module is reusable or damaged, a 3D CAD model of the battery, and component sizes, among other relevant data. This data enables the creation of modular adaptive task planners, allowing robots to collaborate effectively and complete testing, disassembly, and sorting tasks.
I also believes that the lack of information from OEMs about battery design is a major barrier to automating the disassembly process. OEMs are often reluctant to share information about their battery designs, which makes it difficult for recyclers and end users to develop robots that can disassemble them.
Despite these challenges, my belief that automating the disassembly of EV batteries is essential for the future of EV battery recycling. Robots can help to make the process more efficient, safe, and sustainable. I am optimistic that the challenges can be overcome, and that robots will play a major role in the future of EV battery recycling.
The benefits of EV battery recycling
Despite the challenges, there are several benefits associated with recycling EV batteries. One notable advantage is the ability to recover valuable materials such as lithium, nickel, cobalt, and other metals. These materials can be recycled and reused, thereby reducing the need for new materials and mitigating the demand for mining and extraction.
Another significant benefit of EV battery recycling is the potential to minimise the environmental impact of these batteries. The extraction and refinement of new materials for EV batteries can have substantial environmental consequences. By recycling EV batteries, we can alleviate some of these impacts and contribute to a more sustainable approach.
The future of EV battery recycling
The future of EV battery recycling looks promising. Through the development of innovative technologies and services, we can enhance the efficiency, sustainability, and affordability of EV battery recycling. This will contribute to environmental protection and ensure the long-term enjoyment of electric vehicles. As the number of EVs on the road continues to rise, the demand for EV battery recycling will also grow. This presents new prospects for businesses and entrepreneurs to explore and create novel solutions for EV battery recycling.
Dr Alireza Rastegarpanah is a Senior Robotic Scientist at the Faraday Institution/University of Birmingham. Dr Rastegarpanah is currently leading the robotic team working on a project called “Reuse and Recycling of Lithium-ion batteries (RELIB) and is Co-I of €5M REBLION project. He has more than a decade of experience in robotics and AI, and half a decade of experience in applying his knowledge in reuse and recycling of EV batteries.