Tesla co-founder JB Straubel on racing to scale up battery recycling

We’ve reported on JB Straubel, Tesla’s former Chief Technology Officer, and his battery recycling company Redwood Materials, several times in this space. However, the EV industry is becoming increasingly aware of the importance of building domestic supply chains for battery materials, and recycling is an important part of that picture, so Mr. Straubel and other recycling pioneers are in the spotlight. In a recent interview for MIT Technology Review, JB offers some new insights into the massive challenge of building a circular economy, and why we can’t wait.

Above: An employee of Redwood Materials, JB Straubel's battery recycling company (Image: Redwood Materials).

JB Straubel is one of several former Tesla execs who left the company to start their own ventures (see Lucid’s Peter Rawlinson, Blue Innovations’ John Vo, Proterra’s Ryan Popple, and the executive suite at Xcelerate). JB served 16 years at Tesla, and always seemed to me to be a force for calm and stability amid the tabloidesque turnover and turmoil. In the MIT article, he deftly sidesteps interviewer Casey Crownhart’s question about why he left Tesla (they all do), but he does explain why he felt it was so urgent to get into the recycling field.

“It was becoming more obvious that battery scaling would present the need to get so many more raw materials, components, and batteries themselves. That was this looming bottleneck and challenge for the whole industry, even way back then [in 2017]. And I think it’s even more clear today.

“The idea was pretty unconventional at the time. Even your question kind of hints at it—it’s like, why did you leave this glamorous, exciting high-performance car company to go work on garbage? I think entrepreneurship involves being a little bit contrarian. And I think to really make meaningful innovation, it’s often not very conventional.”

The fossil fuel economy (and the global economy in general) is based on the idea of using stuff and throwing it away. As Straubel sees it, that mindset simply isn’t going to work in the clean energy economy. “I think this entire new sustainable economy as we’re envisioning it, with everything electrified, simply can’t work unless you have a closed loop for the raw materials,” he tells Crownhart. “There aren’t enough new raw materials to keep building and throwing them away; it would fundamentally be impossible.”

The noisy anti-EV crowd constantly claims (with no evidence) that batteries “can’t be recycled.” Mr. Struabel (and the hundreds of companies around the world that are investing in the developing recycling industry) would surely beg to differ. As he points out, the raw materials in EV batteries “don’t get degraded, [and] they don’t get compromised—99% of those metals, or perhaps more, can be reused again and again and again. Literally hundreds, perhaps thousands of times.”

However, recycling an EV battery pack doesn’t sound as simple as recycling a beer bottle. “It’s more complicated than I think many people appreciate. There’s just a whole ton of chemistry, chemical engineering, and production engineering that has to happen to make and refine all of the components that go into a battery. It’s not just a sorting or garbage management problem.

“There’s a lot of room for innovation, and these things haven’t been well optimized, or even done at all in some cases. So that’s really the fun stuff as an engineer, where you get to invent and innovate things that haven’t been done.”

When Ms. Crownhart paid a visit to Redwood’s Nevada headquarters, she was struck by the sense of urgency. She asked Mr. Straubel if he believes the EV industry is moving fast enough. “I generally don’t think we’re going fast enough,” he replied. “I don’t think anyone is. You know, I do have this sense of paranoia and urgency and almost—not exactly—panic. That’s not helpful. But I guess it really derives from a deep feeling that I don’t believe we’re appropriately internalizing how bad climate change is going to be.”

The interview covers a lot more ground—the mix of recycled and virgin materials, the challenges of new battery chemistries—and I recommend reading it in its entirety. We (humans, that is) have a limited time to ensure that what we call civilization will continue for a while longer. We’re fortunate to have such a brilliant and (relatively) young engineer as JB Straubel working on what will be a long and complex transition to a sustainable economy.

“Now is our only time to really prepare and react,” says Straubel. “The scale of all this is so big that even when we’re running flat out as fast as we can, with all that urgency that you felt and hopefully more, it’ll still take us decades.”


Source: MIT Technology Review