World first: metals sorted by robots12/04/2021

Multipick is a robotic solution for sorting metals from dismantled vehicles and used household appliances. This unique industrial demonstrator is the result of five years' research and development by engineers from the GeMMe laboratory of the Faculty of Applied Sciences at ULiège, the industrial integrator Citius engineering and the COMET Group. This European leader in the recycling of ferrous and non-ferrous metals plans to invest almost 10 million euros in Reverse Metallurgy to install a robotised line on its Obourg site in the Mons region. It is expected to have one of the highest sorting capacities in the world.

Multipick will be able to sort 20,000 tons of metal waste per year, or one billion pieces, at a rate of 16 pieces per second!

This innovation, the result of close collaboration between scientists and industrialists, is perfectly in line with the objectives of the circular economy, creating a recycling and recovery channel for locally sorted metals. "We currently recycle 98% of a vehicle entering our premises," explains Pierre-François Bareel of the COMET Group. However, three quarters of metal waste consists of steel. But there are many useful metals to recover in the remaining quarter, such as copper, zinc, stainless steel, brass and aluminium. Much of this metal flow goes to Asia for low-cost manual sorting. This is a two-fold loss of value as these materials make their way back to Europe once sorted."

The line developed by the partners of Reverse Metallurgy (the Walloon platform of industrial, technological and scientific recycling excellence) 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 piece and makes the sorting decision, which is transmitted to the sorting robots that operate at a much faster rate than manual sorting, and with unparalleled accuracy.

"There will be no energy transition without the silicon and silver in photovoltaic panels, without the lithium in batteries, but also the manganese, nickel, cobalt and copper. All these metals, and many more besides, are at the heart of the energy transition. The energy transition is the transition to energy from metals," explains Professor Eric Pirard, Head of the GeMMe laboratory (UEE/Faculty of Applied Sciences). "The recycling of metals is a constant challenge, given the many media containing this type of material, from smartphones to cars, household appliances and packaging. We therefore need technological innovations that detect what manual sorting cannot. It is with this in mind that we designed this sorting line," he adds.

The construction of the new Multipick plant in Obourg will start in the autumn and should lead to the creation of around 15 jobs.