Tesla Co-founder Plans to Be the World's Top Battery Recycler With New Venture
J.B. Straubel, who co-founded electric automaker Tesla with Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning and served as the company's first Chief Technical Officer, has big plans for his new battery recycling startup Redwood Materials.
Speaking at the TechCrunch Mobility Sessions virtual conference this week, Straubel said he wants to build Redwood Materials into the world's top battery recycling company and one of the largest battery materials companies. The company was founded by Straubel in 2017.
Straubel aims to leverage two partnerships, one with Tesla's U.S. battery partner Panasonic Corp and another with e-commerce giant Amazon.
In addition to Tesla, electric vehicle battery manufacturers including China's CATL and South Korea's LG Chem, are ramping up production to meet growing demand from automakers. This rise in production is creating greater opportunities for the recycling of battery materials.
Straubel says his ultimate goal is to "make a material impact on sustainability, at an industrial scale."
Redwood Materials will recycle more than battery scrap materials totaling 1 gigawatt-hours' from Tesla's Nevada gigafactory this year, which is enough to power more than 10,000 Tesla vehicles.
Although it represents just a small number of Tesla's annual production of EVs, Chief Executive Elon Musk said at the company's Battery Day event on Sept 22 that he was looking at recycling batteries to supplement the supply of raw materials, including nickel and cobalt as Tesla increases its annual production.
As reported by Reuters, Redwood's partnership with Panasonic started late last year with a pilot operation to recover materials at Redwood's recycling facilities in nearby Carson City, Nevada, according to Celina Mikolajczak, vice president of battery technology at Panasonic Energy of North America.
Mikolajczak spent six years at Tesla as a battery technology leader before joining Panasonic in Oct 2019. She also served as a senior manager for cell quality and materials engineering for Tesla.
"People underestimate what recycling can do for the electric vehicles industry. This could have a huge impact on raw material prices and output in the future," said Mikolajczak.
Before launching Redwood Materials in 2017, Strebel spent 15 years at Tesla. During his tenure, he led battery cell design, supply chain and led the first Gigafactory concept through the production ramp of the Model 3 sedan, Tesla's first mass-market electric car.
Straubel's goal for Redwood Materials is to reduce mining of raw materials such as nickel, copper and cobalt over several decades by building a "closed loop" supply chain that recycles and recirculates materials retrieved from electric vehicle batteries that have reached the end of their service life. The company also plans to recycle and grid storage batteries and from battery cells scrapped during manufacturing.
In September, Redwood said it received funding from Amazon's Climate Pledge Fund, following an investment by Breakthrough Energy Ventures, backed by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Microsoft founder Bill Gates. The Climate Pledge Fund was launched in June with a $2 billion investment from Amazon. It focuses on technology investments to reduce the impact of climate change and support sustainable development.
"I'm excited about the work we can do together," Straubel said of Amazon. "They have batteries in many devices," from consumer electronics to data centers, as well as future electric delivery vehicles and drones.
The recycling of EV batteries is intended to bring down the costs of battery production, which will lead to EVs that cost less to manufacture, which can help boost adoption. The cost of electric vehicle batteries for Tesla and other automakers is typically measured in dollars per kilowatt hour (kWh).
A decade ago, EV batteries cost around $1,100/kWh to produce, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF). Last year, that number fell to just $156/kWh, although it's still considered to be too high to make EVs truly affordable for most people.
At that price point a decade ago, it would have translated into $85,000 for the 75 kWh battery pack which was originally offered in the Tesla Model S in 2012.
BNEF expects that the introduction of new pack designs and lower manufacturing costs will drive prices to below $100/kWh by 2024. This price is considered by the auto industry to be the point at which EVs will cost around the same as internal combustion engine vehicles.
Building batteries with a higher number of recycled components can result in even lower manufacturing costs, so it looks as though Redwood Materials will be an important industry partner for Tesla in the future.
Straubel announced his departure from Tesla in July 2019. However, he remains on as an advisor to the electric automaker.
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