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 on this space. Nonetheless, the EV industry is becoming increasingly aware of the importance of constructing domestic supply chains for battery materials, and recycling is a vital a part of that picture, so Mr. Straubel and other recycling pioneers are within the highlight. In a recent interview for MIT Technology Review, JB offers some recent insights into the large challenge of constructing a circular economy, and why we will’t wait.

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

JB Straubel is one in every of several former Tesla execs who left the corporate to begin their very own ventures (see Lucid’s Peter Rawlinson, Blue Innovations’ John Vo, Proterra’s Ryan Popple, and the chief suite at Xcelerate). JB served 16 years at Tesla, and all the time appeared to me to be a force for calm and stability amid the tabloidesque turnover and turmoil. Within the MIT article, he deftly sidesteps interviewer Casey Crownhart’s query about why he left Tesla (all of them 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 necessity to get so many more raw materials, components, and batteries themselves. That was this looming bottleneck and challenge for the entire industry, even way back then [in 2017]. And I believe it’s much more clear today.

“The thought was pretty unconventional on the time. Even your query form of hints at it—it’s like, why did you permit this glamorous, exciting high-performance automotive company to go work on garbage? I believe entrepreneurship involves being a little bit bit contrarian. And I believe to actually make meaningful innovation, it’s often not very conventional.”

The fossil fuel economy (and the worldwide economy typically) is predicated on the concept of using stuff and throwing it away. As Straubel sees it, that mindset simply isn’t going to work within the clean energy economy. “I believe this whole recent sustainable economy as we’re envisioning it, with all the things electrified, simply can’t work unless you’ve got a closed loop for the raw materials,” he tells Crownhart. “There aren’t enough recent raw materials to maintain constructing and throwing them away; it could fundamentally be not possible.”

The noisy anti-EV crowd continuously claims (with no evidence) that batteries “can’t be recycled.” Mr. Struabel (and the a whole bunch of firms all over the world which might be investing within 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, will be reused repeatedly and again. Literally a whole bunch, perhaps hundreds of times.”

Nonetheless, recycling an EV battery pack doesn’t sound so simple as recycling a beer bottle. “It’s more complicated than I believe many individuals appreciate. There’s just an entire ton of chemistry, chemical engineering, and production engineering that has to occur to make and refine the entire components that go right into a battery. It’s not only a sorting or garbage management problem.

“There’s lots of room for innovation, and this stuff haven’t been well optimized, and even done in any respect in some cases. In order 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 realize, I do have this sense of paranoia and urgency and almost—not exactly—panic. That’s not helpful. But I assume it really derives from a deep feeling that I don’t imagine we’re appropriately internalizing how bad climate change goes to be.”

The interview covers rather a lot more ground—the combination of recycled and virgin materials, the challenges of latest battery chemistries—and I like to recommend reading it in its entirety. We (humans, that’s) have a limited time to make sure that what we call civilization will proceed for some time longer. We’re fortunate to have such an excellent and (relatively) young engineer as JB Straubel working on what will likely be an extended and complicated transition to a sustainable economy.

“Now could be our only time to actually prepare and react,” says Straubel. “The size of all that is so big that even once we’re running flat out as fast as we will, with all that urgency that you simply felt and hopefully more, it’ll still take us many years.”


Source: MIT Technology Review

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