Alireza Rastegarpanah, senior robotic scientist at the University of Birmingham is using advanced robotics and AI to automate the process of disassembly and assessment of end-of-life and damaged lithium-ion batteries
Tell us about your research
I am a senior roboticist working on the ReLiB project that aims to reuse and recycle EV batteries. My research comprises two main streams: (i) developing adaptive learning-based control strategies for robots to disassemble EV batteries, and (ii) developing neural network models for predicting the state of health of EV batteries. I lead the Control and Manipulation Group (CMG) at the Extreme Robotics Lab at the University of Birmingham. CMG includes research fellows, PhDs and interns, and its primary research interest is providing robotic solutions for industrial and engineering applications.
How do you describe why your work is important to non-specialists?
The National Grid estimates that the number of electric vehicles on UK roads will hit 36 million by 2040. There is a growing number of batteries reaching their end-of-life, including damaged EV batteries after traffic accidents. Damaged lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) have the potential to leak electrolyte, or may combust due to short circuits, electrical problems, vibration, overcharging or high temperature. These safety implications impose further burden on EV insurers, end-of-life LIB end-users and recyclers. Robotizing the process of battery disassembly reduces the safety risks, and helps to assess the health condition of the batteries for second life. However, this process is not fully automated yet. The main barrier is a lack of standard in the design of batteries. In my research, by amalgamation of machine learning techniques and robotic methods I try to develop strategies that could be generalised and applied to batteries used in different EV models, regardless of their design, geometry and chemistry.
How did you get into battery research?
As an engineer, I have always enjoyed working on projects that have a real impact on industry, and I found ReLiB to be a multidisciplinary and timely project that not only aims to address one of the main challenges of the automotive industry, but also has national and global importance – it will help to construct a sustainable circular economy.
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
I’ve been proud of how we’ve developed this project since 2018 and reached the stage where we can implement some of our algorithms and methods into industry. Currently, I have a funded collaboration with manufacturing industries and motor insurer groups. Our team at the Extreme Robotics Lab built an industrial-scale battery disassembly facility at the Birmingham Innovation Centre at Tyseley Energy Park. We are currently working on transferring the knowledge we gained in our research lab to this industrial environment at Tyseley. It is one of the first robotic facilities in the UK that is built for EV battery testing and recycling. This robotic facility is equipped with industrial robots and sensors that are funded by the Faraday Institution.
What is a highlight of your career to date or the aspect that gives you greatest job satisfaction?
The greatest job satisfaction for me is to see my developed methods have an impact on industry. I have successfully developed various robotic frameworks that use a vision-guided manipulation technique that are currently in use by the manufacturing industry. The goal of my research is to be a bridge between academia and industry.
In addition, I have transferred my knowledge to members of the public by running a number of outreach activities to audiences in different age ranges, from school kids to graduated students.
What opportunities has being part of the Faraday Institution opened up for you?
The Faraday Institution opened up two main opportunities for me: first, it enabled me to develop my technical skills to transfer my knowledge to industry, and second it helped me to develop my leadership skills by funding my research activities.
What are the biggest challenges you have overcome in your career and how have you gone about doing so?
Disassembly of EV batteries using robots is a complex task that requires a broad range of expertise such as vision, manipulation, machine learning and electromechanics. At the beginning of ReLiB I was the only research fellow working on this project and delivering the milestones was a tedious task. But gradually I expanded my team by recruiting PhDs and research engineers. At the moment, we have developed a strategy for disassembly and testing EV batteries on both lab and industrial scales.
What are your career aspirations?
I would like to have an independent research group to transfer my skills and experiences to other researchers. I want to develop my leadership skills to become a leader in robotic disassembly.
What advice would you have liked to have given to your younger self starting out on your career?
I advise junior researchers and students to trust themselves and follow their interests. I think a researcher should learn to think outside the box. Sometimes you should step back and see the bigger picture.
What is your favourite battery-related fact?
In contrast to what most people think, not all electric vehicles are very quiet. As of 2019, all electric and hybrid vehicles registered in the UK must have an acoustic sound system installed to make a specified level of noise whenever they reverse or run at speeds below 20 km/h.
If someone wants to find out more about your research, where would you point them to?
My webpage on the University of Birmingham website.
Connect with Alireza on LinkedIn.
Published October 2022.
About the author: Cara Burke is the Faraday Institution’s Science Communications Intern in the summer of 2022. She has just completed her BSc Biological Sciences degree at Imperial College London and is pursuing a career in science communications.