Tesla dropped a number of info bombs in its shareholder meeting this week. We’ve summarized 28 of them in two separate articles. Beyond the headlines about production numbers and finances, Tesla announced a few major new developments, including some insights into its work on battery recycling.
After initial comments about the state of the company, Elon and team addressed questions posed in a few hand-picked tweets about work the company is doing. One of those tweets asked about a hot topic that interests many companies working in the plug-in vehicle space as well as fans, critics, and the media: battery recycling.
Tesla CTO JB Straubel took the question and opened up about the current state of battery recycling at Tesla. As part of that, he mentioned future plans for closed-loop battery recycling at the Gigafactory — er, at all gigafactories.
Before we dive in, it’s worth mentioning that Tesla’s core product is batteries. Its batteries that power its energy products, beautiful as they may be on the outside, as well as its electric cars and even its USB smartphone charger.
At their core, batteries bring together a specific mix of materials rolled, folded, squirted, or otherwise assembled into a specific form factor, for a specific application. A huge chunk of that cost is tied up in the active ingredients of the battery. Unlike batteries in our cellphones, remote controls, and laptops, electric vehicle batteries are packaged together in massive quantities — with the Model S famously containing over 7,700 individual 18650 battery cells.
When the battery pack — the massive ~1,000 pound skateboard that the rest of the car sits on — has reached the end of its useful life, the components in each of the thousands of cells contained therein continue to have value. Even better, with so many grouped together into that single unit, they represent an easy target for recycling, which Tesla does today. JB Straubel shared as much at the shareholder meeting, noting that, “Tesla will absolutely recycle — and we do recycle — all of our spent cells, modules, and battery packs.”
Around the world, loose batteries from our consumer products and beyond make it into landfills, but again, electric vehicles contain thousands of cells — being so damn heavy, it is much easier to control the disposal of spent EV battery packs.
It’s not like people will be taking their car over to a friend’s house for a battery swap on a random Thursday night. That’s not saying that it’s not possible — it’s just much harder to do than, say, an oil change. JB addressed that as well, relating that, “The discussion about this waste ending up in landfills is not correct. We would not do that. These are valuable materials and, in addition, it’s just the right thing to do.”
Tesla is doing this through a vast network of partners with footprints around the world. “We have current partner companies on every major continent where we have cars operating that we work with to do this today and, in addition, we’re developing internally more processes, we’re doing R&D on how we can improve this recycling process to get more of the active materials back.” It’s typical Tesla to continuously improve and to vertically integrate, but more than that, recycling EV batteries is just good business.
The long-term goal is to recycle spent batteries from any of Tesla’s businesses at each of its Gigafactories. “And ultimately what we want is a closed loop at the Gigafactories that reuses recycled materials. This isn’t impossible and we see a pathway to do it.” Recycling old batteries in the same physical location where the raw materials resulting from the recycling process will be used just makes sense. Why add cost by shipping raw materials around the world?
“Today, we’re on the way to do that. It’s definitely something that will be a huge benefit in the long term to cost as we’re able to reuse existing materials instead of having to mine new materials.”
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