Intelligent robots that sort metal waste



"There will be no energy transition without the silicon and silver in the photovoltaic panels, without the lithium in the batteries, but also without the manganese, nickel, cobalt and copper. All these metals, and many more, are at the heart of the energy transition. The energy transition is the transition towards the energy of metals." The words of Professor Eric Pirard, head of the GEMME Laboratory (UEE/School of Engineering) marked the press meeting presenting the Multipick project and its industrial prototype developed as part of the Walloon Reverse Metallurgy programme.

Multipick is a robotic solution for sorting metals from the dismantling of used vehicles and household appliances. The industrial demonstrator was developed at the end of five years of research and development by engineers from the GeMMe laboratory in the School of Engineering of the ULiège, in partnership with the COMET industrial group and the industrial integrator CITIUS.

The development of this prototype, with the support of Walloon and European FEDER funds, is today leading to an investment of nearly 10 million euros that the Comet group, a European leader in the recycling of ferrous and non-ferrous metals, will carry out on its Obourg site in the Mons region. The industrial demonstrator will be installed in a new 6,500 m2 plant. Composed of 16 robots, the future Multipick sorting line will be capable of sorting 20,000 tonnes of metal waste per year, i.e. a billion pieces at a rate of 16 pieces every second!

The innovation fits in perfectly with the objectives of circular economy, by creating a recycling and recovery chain for metals sorted locally. "Currently, we recycle 98% of a vehicle entering our premises," explains Pierre-François Bareel, from the COMET group. However, three quarters of metal waste consists of steel. But in the remaining quarter, many metals remain interesting to recycle, such as copper, zinc, stainless steel, brass or aluminium. A good part of these metal flows are heading for Asia for low-cost manual sorting. This is a double loss of value since these materials make the opposite way to Europe once sorted. "

From this observation was born the desire to create an industrial solution for the automated sorting of these metals. The line developed by the Walloon partners of Reverse Metallurgy recognises the nature of the different metals thanks to a combination of different X-ray, spectral and 3D sensors. Artificial intelligence uses the information provided by these sensors for each part and makes the sorting decision, a decision transmitted to the sorting robots, which operate at a much faster rate than manual sorting, and with unequalled precision. The Walloon Minister for the Economy, Willy Borsus, welcomed this project, born of the close collaboration between scientific and industrial players, which fits perfectly with the objectives of reviving the circular economy. "The pandemic has highlighted the vulnerability of our economy to external elements linked to the globalisation of value chains. Metal recycling is thus a strategic axis supported by Wallonia and Reverse Metallurgy via the Mecatech cluster. »

An observation shared by the rector Pierre Wolper, who underlined the analogies with the health crisis and the innovations, notably developed by the ULiège, to recreate local production capacities.

Construction work on the new Multipick factory in Obourg will begin in the autumn.

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