Redwood Materials CEO: Electrify everything but recycle the batteries

The number of EVs on the road is exploding, but with that growth comes literal tons of mining and raw material extraction. This can be devastating to the environment, and the speed at which that extraction is growing can be mind-boggling. Redwood Materials, an early and significant player in the battery recycling space, has solutions to some of those issues, but they’re not going to be easy to achieve. Company founder and CEO JB Straubel talked with MIT Technology Review about Redwood and his views on where battery recycling is heading.

Straubel believes that electrifying everything is likely the best solution to many of the world’s sustainability challenges. The problem is that electrification requires batteries, which he believes needs to be a closed system in which the raw materials are refined and recycled after use instead of being tossed. There are environmental issues with not recycling, and it’s simply impossible to sustain raw material extraction to support that level of battery production.

Unfortunately, battery recycling isn’t as simple as chopping up the pieces. Straubel noted the high degree of knowledge required and said that a massive amount of chemistry, engineering, and production effort is needed to pull it off. He also said that the industry’s newness gives Redwood plenty of runway for innovation and to optimize the processes.

In terms of how much of an EV battery is reusable, Straubel laid out a shocking statistic: Up to 99 percent of the metals and raw materials inside today’s batteries can be recovered and reused multiple times. Even so, the industry is still new enough that Redwood has to supplement recycled materials with newly mined material until there are enough used batteries to support a full-scale recycling operation.

Redwood is also looking at recycling diverging battery technologies, and Straubel said he is not focused on a single battery format or chemical composition. Redwood is rooting for the batteries that deliver the best results, which it believes will be a mix of chemistries and technologies.

Redwood has raised more than $1 billion and is in the process of building a massive facility in Nevada. The company plans to build a second plant near Charleston, S.C. Straubel said the recycling facilities have to be massive in size, so scaling in the future will have to include an eye on footprint and efficiency.

Check out the full MIT Technology Review article for more about why Straubel left Tesla as its chief technology officer, and just how he sees battery recycling working.



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