JB Straubel, who was the chief technology officer at Tesla for many years, knows a thing or two about batteries. He has created a new company called Redwood Materials that he describes as a “Gigafactory in reverse,” meaning it is designed to recover most of the raw materials needed to make lithium-ion batteries in the first place so they can be used to make new batteries.
Straubel’s idea seems to have attracted a lot of interest from some powerful interests. Amazon in particular has pledged to invest $2 billion in green technologies through its Climate Pledge Fund. A chunk of that money — Amazon declines to say exactly how big a chunk — will go to Redwood Materials. Previously, Redwood received $40 million from investors, led by Capricorn Investment Group and Breakthrough Energy Ventures, which includes Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates.
“Amazon’s investment is significant because of its size and its commitment to have a more sustainable footprint,” Straubel tells CNBC. “The company has batteries in so many places within the company, from Amazon Web Services to consumer electronics to its growing electric logistics fleet.” Redwood Materials will work with Amazon to recycle electric vehicle batteries, other lithium-ion batteries, and e-waste from various Amazon operations.
Redwood Materials is located in Carson City, Nevada, not far from Tesla’s Gigafactory 1. It is working with Panasonic to recycle some of the waste products from its battery manufacturing operations at Gigafactory 1 and may work with Tesla to recycle some of its production waste as well in time.
“When you look at the future of transportation and electrification of vehicles, the number of batteries that will be needed is staggering,” Straubel says. “We’re already recovering most of the metal, lithium, nickel, cobalt from batteries we are recycling. Now we need to do it more efficiently and at a vastly larger scale.”
Recycled materials will be less expensive than mining, refining, and transporting new materials, which means recapturing and reusing them will drive down the cost of batteries. That in turn will further accelerate the EV revolution by making electric cars less expensive. Straubel foresees a process so efficient that nearly 100% of the valuable components of discarded batteries could be recaptured and reused.
The EV revolution and the circular economy need to be best of friends if humans are to have a chance of keeping the world safe for human habitation. We can’t have one without the other.