Lithium-ion batteries form a central part of the plan to move away from fossil fuels. To achieve these goals, innovations in factory automation are equally essential.
Electric vehicles are on the rise. Not so long ago, battery-powered cars still faced extensive hurdles to reach widespread consumer adoption. Now, range anxiety has significantly lessened, and electric vehicles are hitting an inflection point, where sales are expected to rise rapidly over the next decade and beyond.
The implications of this trend are wide ranging. On the positive side, proponents expect electric vehicles to play a key role in the transition off fossil fuels and toward renewable energy. While electric vehicles currently are only as green as their energy sources, moving consumers off direct fossil fuels will mean that transitioning energy infrastructure toward renewable sources will have a more immediate impact.
Skeptics are correct to point out that the energy required to manufacture EV batteries in their current form is greater (and therefore more costly and less eco-friendly) than what it takes to produce a standard combustion engine. As a result, EV batteries require years of use before they offset the environmental costs of their production, and that’s still not taking into account the negative impacts on the environment and local communities of precious metals mining itself.
The good news is that, for all the complications posed by battery assembly, factory automation is playing a key role in transforming this technology, making it more cost effective for consumers as well as more environmentally friendly.
New production technologies for EV battery automation.
While research laboratories continue to test new materials for their energy storage potential, the current standard for electric vehicles are either lithium-ion or lithium-ion-phosphate batteries. These batteries, which are also used in cell phones and laptops, are currently the only viable market options for electric vehicles, due to their high energy density. As a result, electric vehicles currently account for 80% of the demand for lithium-ion batteries.
To satisfy this demand, automated factories will have to improve their processes. These improvements must both increase the quality of battery output, and lower the energy consumption required to produce them, which accounts for the majority of both the cost and negative environmental impacts of EV battery production.
Current manufacturing processes showing the most promise include the following:
Water, dust, and other contaminants pose significant production problems for manufacturers, especially during electrode fabrication and cell assembly. Accomplishing these processes in a vacuum environment cuts down on these risks and improves the quality of the final product.
Seamless material handling.
While vacuum technology offers many advantages, the individual batch process currently in use creates inefficiencies and drives up cost. Smart material handling could seamlessly transport materials through different microenvironments, where intelligent monitoring systems could control temperature and vacuum systems more precisely.
The speed and precision of laser cutting increases the output and quality control of this process stage. Moreover, the laser itself doesn’t need to be replaced, reducing the need for consumable parts.
Ultrasonic welding technologies are able to join thin or delicate parts of a range of materials with a high degree of control, and without risk of puncturing.
Machine visioning systems are proving to be the most reliable for detecting defects in battery production. Advanced vision technology is able to recognize the size, position, alignment, and appearance of batteries at each stage of the production process, creating a more comprehensive test system.
EV data collection.
As lithium-ion batteries are used more widely, real-world usage data can be collected and analyzed to improve performance. Batteries can also be tracked so that consumers can be notified and guided through next steps when it is time to recycle them.
While not a production process itself, the ability to simulate potential processes is increasing the overall efficiency of battery production by making it easier to test creative assembly structures without the need for physical prototypes.
EV battery innovation will have implications outside electric vehicles.
The incentives driving electric vehicle battery innovation stem from government programs as well as consumer demand. In the United States, recent tax credits for electric vehicle purchases have lowered cost barriers for consumers. Improvements in EV range and an increase in available power stations have also given more drivers confidence in their vehicle’s ability to meet their range needs.
The resulting boom in lithium-ion battery demand, while fueling innovation, is also widening the range of battery applications. These include:
- Broader lithium-ion battery adoption. While electric vehicles have received the most attention, lithium-ion batteries are increasingly being put to use in other autonomous machines, including battery-operated forklifts and mobile robots. These technologies benefit from the high energy output of lithium-ion batteries, but do not have the same range requirements of electric vehicles.
- Battery repurposing. Electric vehicles require batteries that are able to maintain their charges sufficiently to handle long distances, so once they drop below a certain efficiency level, they no longer have the capacity to power electric vehicles. This doesn’t mean they’re not useful for other purposes, however. Lithium-ion batteries that are no longer useful for electric vehicles can still be repurposed for use in autonomous robots or other mobile equipment where long-range mobility is not a requirement, or as stationary power storage.
- Battery recycling. Recycling lithium batteries has potential, but current processes are not efficient enough to be cost effective. According to the World Economic Forum, recycling lithium is currently five times more expensive than mining raw lithium. But this need not be the case forever. Again, from the WEF, “To reclaim one ton [of lithium], 28 tons of batteries have to be recycled. But to extract one ton of virgin lithium from Chile, 1,250 tons of earth must be dug up.” This indicates that battery recycling may become a major manufacturing priority in the future.
Eagle Technologies has taken the lead in applying high-end industrial manufacturing automation technologies to EV battery production. In fact, Eagle’s battery cell assembly and test system can be see on display at the San Jose Electric Vehicle Innovation Center in California. Developed by our partners at Rockwell Automation, the EV Innovation Center provides visitors with an immersive experience in how emerging automation technologies are applied to electric vehicles.
Contact us today if you are interested in visiting the innovation center, or if you would like to learn more about how our EV battery assembly automation technology can work for you.
Eagle Technologies, headquarters in Bridgman, MI