Adequate, responsible supply of raw materials is a substantial barrier to ubiquitous electric vehicle participation in the world’s vehicle fleet. Tesla co-founder and former chief technical officer J.B. Straubel figures that if we reclaim the materials already mined and used in existing devices that there will be less need to dig up virgin materials.
To accomplish this, Straubel founded Redwood Materials, Inc., in Carson City, Nevada, in 2017. The company is creating a closed-loop supply chain for electric vehicles and energy products, making them more sustainable long term and continuing to drive down the costs for batteries.
Redwood is making mined materials sustainable creating a circular supply chain for the lithium, cobalt, copper, and other materials contained in EV batteries. While there aren’t that many EV batteries that are yet ready for recycling, Redwood is already busily recycling lithium-ion batteries from consumer electronics with the goal of fully closed-loop recycling for the expected hundreds of thousands of EV batteries in a few years.
Additionally, Redwood is processing Panasonic’s manufacturing scrap from Tesla’s Gigafactory plus that from Envision AESC too. Amazon has also agreed to send e-waste from its business. The 20,000 tons of battery material recycled annually makes Redwood the largest battery recycler in North America, according to the company. That equates to about 2 gigawatt-hours of battery capacity, which is enough to equip 30,000 cars.
Redwood’s recovery process is impressively efficient, getting most of the materials contained in lithium batteries out in a form that is suitable for reuse. The company is getting “almost all of it,” Straubel said on the Bloomberg Businessweek show, “Hello World.” “Lithium, more than 80 percent,” he said. “Nickel, 95 to 98 percent. Same with cobalt and copper. It is a pretty complete process.”
With that level of effectiveness, the process should diminish the need for more raw materials to be mined as more batteries are recycled into new ones. “There is no limit to it,” said Straubel. “There is no degradation of those atoms of lithium or cobalt or nickel. Those metals are basically infinitely recyclable. Except for the small amounts that get lost in the recycling process itself, you can basically keep doing that, again and again and again. If we can do this a thousand times, the need to mine new material starts to dwindle.”
That would be an immense accomplishment, and an important step to making EVs as green as their reputation already is. “It is pretty neat to see it like this and know that it came from batteries that would otherwise have been garbage and otherwise wouldn’t have been recovered.”