This Tesla co-founder has a plan to recycle your EV batteries
Tesla co-founder JB Straubel believes the recycling revolution is coming to EV batteries. The largest lithium mine in the world could be sitting in America's unwanted gadgets. The FT's Patrick McGee reports.
Produced by Tom Hannen. Filmed by Ryan Croke and Dan Dominy
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Every mobile phone, every laptop, every electric car battery is filled with precious metals that could soon be cheaper to recycle than to mine from the ground. That's the vision of Tesla co-founder J.B. Straubel, who was the mastermind behind its battery technology.
Straubel left Tesla in 2019 to focus on making lithium ion batteries fully recyclable. It was a pretty unusual move for someone who probably doesn't need to work anymore.
I had many, many people kind of looking at me inquisitively, like, you're going to work on garbage?
He now believes that he has the technology needed to recycle these batteries at his start-up company, Redwood Materials.
Two to three truckloads a day of old batteries and electronics arrive. So it can be anything from your old iPhone battery to a scooter to an electric bicycle to a power drill or a toothbrush.
So they're starting small. About half of the waste is consumer products. But the other half is leftover scrap from battery manufacturing companies. Redwood has raised more than $700m to help build electric car batteries without the need for any new mining.
There aren't that many electric vehicles reaching end of life yet. As we sit here today in 2021 it's a relatively small amount.
So we didn't want to wait to build the company. We didn't want to wait to innovate and understand the chemistry. And therefore, we can get started and grow the business and still generate revenue and make profit working with other categories of materials.
But the chemistry and how we do that process is almost identical. So everything we're learning and everything we're inventing right now is 100 per cent applicable as we continue to scale up and see a higher and higher mix of electric vehicle batteries reaching end of life.
Beyond recycling, Redwood's mission is to build a massive facility focused on manufacturing sustainable cathode materials. It aims to produce enough material to support 1m EVs by 2025, and 5m by 2030. In the process it hopes to simplify and cut down the global logistics needed for today's electric vehicles.
But if electric cars are zero-emission already, why is recycling their batteries so important? To answer this we need to look at the journey that battery materials make before they end up inside the vehicle.
Take cobalt, one of the metals used to make a battery's cathode. The biggest source of this metal is the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it is often extracted by hand in very low-tech and dangerous mines by young boys. It could then be shipped to Finland, home to Europe's largest cobalt refinery, before heading to China, where a majority of the world's cathode production takes place.
From there, it might be shipped to, say, Nevada to create battery cells that get clustered into packs ahead of their final journey to a car production line in California. All told, the cobalt travels more than 20,000 miles from the mine to the automaker before a buyer emerges and places a zero-emission sticker on the bumper. The pathways for lithium, nickel, manganese, and other elements are different but no less complex.
Is environment your biggest motivation? And when did you have this sort of "eureka" moment or the "aha" moment that this was a problem, was not being addressed, and you could play a role?
The environment is one of the key motivations for this. And there are many others. Economics, I would say, is up there near parity with the environment.
Batteries need an appropriate disposal solution once they do reach end of life. We can't just throw them in the landfill. They have hazards.
So when you make a battery and you engineer and create all the materials that go into that it does have some emissions. And those are the so-called embedded emissions in the product itself. And by recycling a higher and higher percentage of those materials that go into the battery we can reduce dramatically the embedded emissions.
Essentially, you get to go through and use those materials again and again. And the more times you reuse them, the less emissions they'll have from when they were first created.
So when the e-waste arrives, what's the process they go through to break it down?
We have a few different pathways that it goes through, depending on what the material is. If it's a piece of production scrap material, we'll go through a mechanical separation process first. Then we go into what we call hydrometallurgy, where we'll put those metals into a solution form - basically make them a liquid - and then use different aspects of their chemistry to separate one metal from another.
And then once they're separated, we reconstitute them back into a product, a solid form. And those refined metals are what we then can sell back into the supply chain to offset the need for a mined material.
So fast forward... I don't know if I'm giving you enough time. 10 years? 15 years? To what extent are we seeing the equivalent of a giant un-manufacturing facility where robots are taking apart smartphones and doing the thing that you're describing?
We will see - maybe not as far as 10 or 15 years, hopefully before that - we will see large un-manufacturing facilities. I feel like in the world today we have so much focus on manufacturing and so much investment in manufacturing. And only a very tiny fraction of that mental thought and capital goes into un-manufacturing.
Part of that is what we're doing. We're adding and inventing that un-manufacturing process and treating it with a very technological view, the same way that we would treat building and designing a new factory.
So if a circular economy is to become a reality, un-manufacturing - the reversal and reuse of products - could become as normal a concept as manufacturing industries are today.
Only 25 hundred Roadsters were ever sold. It's a long way from that to the giant gigafactory that J.B. helped design and build, which is now pumping out lithium ion batteries at an ever increasing rate. If we want a zero-carbon future what we choose to do with those batteries at their end of life could be as important as the switch away from petrol-fueled cars.