The popularity of electric vehicles (EVs) has seen an unprecedented rise since the early 2000s. Prompted predominately by individuals seeking a more sustainable alternative or those who are after the status symbol that is often associated with EVs, this type of vehicle has taken the automobile industry by storm and is only expected to continuing dominating in the years to come.
The EVs rise to fame was not always a smooth ride. From copious trial runs, opposing arguments, and even recent issues from infamous EV brands such as Tesla, this sector of the industry does not come without its fair share of volatility.
One aspect where EVs see a lot of pushback lies within their use of lithium-ion batteries. There have been questions raised about whether they are worth producing due to their energy-intense manufacturing process and difficult recyclability. Though these theories have been proven false by many life-cycle analyses, there is always room for growth and improvement, and working to better the recyclability of lithium-ion batteries is a task on many researchers’ lists.
That said, engineers at the United States Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) have recently announced their successful venture at robotic disassembly of lithium-ion batteries, paving the way for the next-generation EV industry and the future of alternative energy.
Lithium-ion and EVs
The environmental impact of EVs is rather cut and dry. Though variations can occur depending on sourcing and manufacturing location, and the production process is rather energy-intensive, electric vehicles still have an overall lower environmental impact than traditional gasoline-powered cars. This is due to the lithium-ion battery that can be recharged, providing room for saved energy, resources, and fewer emissions released into the atmosphere.
ORNL has been working at automating the end-of-life section to negate any discrepancies. Many benefits can come from automating this process that can aid in the sustainability of the battery and the safety of humans. For example, when disassembled by hand, precautions must be taken to assure that the battery is first disengaged to avoid a potential hazard. With robots, this step is negligible, as the robot will not sustain any injuries should the battery not be fully disengaged before disassembling.
Further, this automation system can be applied to different types of batteries, opening up an even more range of possibilities for sustainable battery alternatives.
The Department of Energy’s Critical Materials Institute (CMI) director Tom Lograsso states, “Automatic disassembly of components containing critical materials not only eliminates labour-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.”
Jonathan Harter, the ORNL project team member explains that researchers must first carefully break down the batteries and record all of that data to be fed to the robots. Once the robots have been provided with sufficient data, they can begin to disassemble. This process allows for an exact science of disassembling that can further limit discrepancies and get the industry on track from all of the backlogged batteries.
Jonathan says, “Industry is not limited on the number 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.”
Though the topic of automation can be a touchy subject for some, if done correctly and periodically, AI can actually aid in quality of life. Regarding this invention, the use of AI will allow for fewer workplace hazards and more efficient recycling. Further, this animation can save a significant amount of employee and company time. Johnathan suggests that the robots can disassemble roughly 100 battery stacks in the time it would take to disassemble 12 by hand. Working at a speed of almost 10x faster can ultimately save heaps of energy and money that can be reinvested into other sustainable advancements.
The American Institute of Economic Research outlines the various outcomes that can occur as a result of continued animation. They state that though some jobs will become completed automated, there will be new positions that open as the demand for roles such as engineers, safety coordinators, and researchers will skyrocket.
Further, the Institute explains the leverage that humans have over artificial intelligence (AI) due to our flexibility and adaptability to various scenarios and circumstances. That said, as with many things, AI does pose some challenges that must be taken into consideration. For example, there is a predictable widening in wealth-gap when AI starts to take off, similarly to what happened during the industrial revolution, only on a larger scale. This is due to the savings that will accrue to the small minority of owners who have adapted these automated systems, leaving those who now have no jobs receiving the short end of the stick. However, as automation continues to become more mainstream, this gap is expected to close.
With that taken into consideration, the path in which society is heading is down the route of AI, so working to assure proper regulations, transitional policies, and other key factors can help to greatly reduce a significant societal shift.
Lastly, in the realm of disassembling lithium-ion batteries, we can see how AI can be used to humanity's advantage if the proper precautions are implemented. As time moves forward and once the prototypes have been commercialized, we can expect even more technological advances that can aid in making green options even greener and help close the growing threat of climate change.