in a recent interview MIT Technology ReviewJB Straubel, former chief technology officer of Tesla and founder of battery recycling company Redwood Materials, talked about why he decided to leave Tesla and attack in a different direction.
“Of course, Tesla is a fantastic venture, but as it’s been successful, I think it’s becoming increasingly clear that battery scale is going to require access to more raw materials, components and the battery itself. That’s the looming bottleneck across the industry And challenges, even a long time ago. I think it’s clearer today.
“The idea was very unconventional at the time. Even your question was kind of suggestive—like, why did you leave this fascinating, exciting high-performance car company to take out the garbage? It’s often not very traditional to think that to actually make meaningful innovations.”
As for why battery recycling is a new area he’s chosen to focus on, Straubel says, “More and more solutions [a] The sustainability issue is electrifying it and adding batteries to it, which is great, and I’ve spent most of my career advocating and helping speed it up. If we don’t electrify everything, I think our climate goals are completely defeated. But at the same time, it has a staggering number of batteries. I just think we really need to figure out a solid solution at the end of life.
“I think this whole new sustainable economy that we envision, where everything is electrified, doesn’t work at all unless you have a closed loop of raw materials. There’s not enough new raw materials to keep building and throwing them away; It’s impossible.”
JB Straubel on Battery Recycling Technology
It’s nice to talk about battery recycling, but the process itself is complicated. Redwood Materials learns along the way—blazes a trail, you might say. “It’s a lot more complicated than I think many people appreciate,” Straubel said. “It takes a lot of chemistry, chemical engineering and production engineering to make and improve all the components in a battery. It’s not just a matter of sorting or waste management.
“There’s a lot of room for innovation, and these things aren’t well optimized, and in some cases aren’t even done at all. So it’s really interesting as an engineer, you can invent and innovate things that have been done a couple of times.” One, three, four times.”
“But what’s not intuitive is that the metals inside batteries are highly reusable. All these materials that we put in batteries and electric vehicles aren’t going anywhere. They’re all still there. They don’t degrade, they Will not compromise. 99% metal (emphasis added), or more, can be reused again and again. Literally hundreds, maybe thousands of times. “
It’s an aspect of the EV revolution that few fully understand. Sure, there are car recycling yards that can recycle some parts of conventional cars, but nothing that reaches the 99 percent-plus recyclability Straubel predicts. There are people running around screaming about how electric car owners are driving their cars into lakes when their batteries die, and soon our landfills will be overflowing with toxic wastewater leaking from mountains of spent batteries. Those people were all out to make a political statement, a statement that was completely divorced from reality.
One of the problems Redwood Materials faces is that there isn’t yet a sufficient supply of used EV batteries to meet demand for the recycled material, so the company is using some newly mined minerals to make its products. “I do see where we are as a sustainable battery materials company. One of our main goals and objectives is to take the long view and make sure we are building the most effective long-term system where the recycled material content makes up the majority of the supply.
“But at the same time,” says Straubel, “we’re taking a pragmatic view. We have to mix a certain amount of virgin material—whatever we can get in the greenest way—to make the transition from fossil fuels Increase production. Our goal is to help decarbonize batteries and reduce the energy impact and embedded CO2. And I think it’s better for the world to phase out fossil fuel cars than to say, ‘Well, we can’t make electric cars because we don’t have enough recycled material.’ Much better.”
Asked if his company was only focused on recycling batteries that contained certain chemicals, Staubel said: “I’m very skeptical. A sustainable transition. So we really support whatever battery technology ultimately has the best performance. I think it’s going to be a mix. We’re going to see more diversity in battery chemistries and technologies.
“So when we design this cycle we need to think about all the different technologies, they all have pros and cons. Some are more challenging in different ways. Obviously ferric phosphate has a lower total commodity metal value but certainly not zero … There’s a good opportunity to recover lithium and copper from that. So I think each one has its own set of characteristics that we have to manage.
“We’re in an incredibly rapid phase of growth and deployment over the next year. We’re simultaneously innovating in a lot of different areas. It’s really exciting and fun, but while we’re doing it It’s also very challenging to manage all the parallel threads. It’s like a giant multiplayer chess game.
“In the long run, it’s going to be more and more about scale and scaling efficiencies. It’s just a huge industry. The physical size of these facilities is huge, the amount of material is huge, and the capital requirements are huge. So I think in the next few decades Here, I would say our focus and our challenge will be to make sure we can scale ultra-efficiently to terawatt-hour scale.”
The looming climate crisis
Straubel is clearly concerned about the challenges posed by an overheated climate and sees the need to electrify everything as soon as possible. “I usually don’t think we’re fast enough. I don’t think anybody is. You know, I do have this paranoia and urgency and almost — not quite — panic. That didn’t work. But I guess it really does from a deep feeling I don’t think we’re properly internalizing the severity of climate change (emphasize). So I guess I have this anxiety and fear that it’s going to turn out to be a lot worse than I think most people expect.
“And it has this inertia, so now is the only time we’re really going to prepare and react. The scale of all of this is such that even though we’re going all out as fast as we can, with the kind of Urgency, hope for more, we’re still decades away.”
Yet politicians in Wyoming and Virginia are trying to score political points by mocking the transition to electric vehicles, little realizing that it’s not about politics, it’s about human survival. Ultimately, it won’t be battery recycling that will save humanity. It will overcome the fear and ignorance that fuel the climate crisis.
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