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Driving Change

Tesla's co-founder is pioneering a circular system for electric vehicle batteries

By sourcing leftover materials from current factories, Redwood Materials can help lower the cost of batteries and also reduce considerable waste. 

An EV battery cross-section

This week, I've been thinking a lot about electric vehicle batteries and the massive potential for battery recycling and reuse.

As the market for electric vehicles takes off, that means eventually hundreds of millions of EV batteries will be in use and then face end of life. The industry needs to make the process of EV battery production, use, reuse and recycling much more efficient.

Why? A few reasons:

  • Battery materials are very valuable, and a lot of money is invested into pulling those metals out of the ground.
  • The production of EV batteries is very wasteful, meaning companies are losing a lot of money through wasted materials.
  • After electric car batteries aren't very good at moving a car anymore, they can be taken and used for other applications, such as for the power grid, potentially for several years.
  • EV batteries contain materials that can be toxic and need to be safely recycled and responsibly managed through end of life. 
  • EV companies are trying to position themselves as green, and having more efficient and circular battery systems helps with the brand.
  • The cost of EV batteries needs to get even cheaper to reach mainstream, and reuse of battery materials can reduce the cost of battery production. 

One reason I've been thinking about this issue is because of our excellent event Circularity, which the GreenBiz team put on last week. Speakers across the three days emphasized the crucial nature of developing products and systems that reduce or even eliminate waste, leading to more profits and less pollution for the planet. Lithium-ion batteries are clearly a candidate for such innovative circular thinking. 

Another reason battery reuse and recycling is coming to light this week is because of the emergence of Redwood Materials, a startup founded by former Tesla chief technology officer JB Straubel.

The company, featured in a lengthy Wall Street Journal article over the weekend, has a plan to take scrap metal from EV battery production and use that for the raw materials of other EV batteries.

By sourcing leftover materials from current factories, the company can help lower the cost of batteries and also reduce considerable waste. Redwood Materials is already working with Panasonic (Tesla's battery partner) to take scrap metal from the Gigafactory in Nevada. Straubel says that in 10 years he thinks the company can deliver battery materials for half the cost of mined materials. 

If you don't know Straubel, he's the young engineer who, almost 20 years ago, convinced Elon Musk that lithium-ion batteries would get cheap enough and powerful enough to move a car. The result was Tesla, and Straubel contributed so much to the company over the years that Musk coined him as a founder. 

I, for one, am very excited to see the talented and passionate Straubel emerge from the Tesla/Musk juggernaut as a leader and entrepreneur in his own right. 

I've also been thinking about circular EV batteries because I'm planning to host a conversation on this subject at our upcoming VERGE 20 event, which will run the last week in October. If you have ideas for speakers or framing on second-life batteries, drop me a note:

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