CNBC: How Tesla’s Battery Mastermind Is Tackling Electric Vehicles’ Biggest Problem

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In a new video, CNBC details how Tesla’s battery mastermind is solving the largest problem that EVs have. The video starts out with thousands of plastic bags filled with batteries. These batteries come from EVs, phones, scooters, laptops, and other electronic devices. Since these batteries are both flammable and toxic, it’s critical that they don’t end up in landfills. And it would be a waste if they did — after all, the batteries still have materials that are “as good as new.”

JB Straubel, a Tesla co-founder and its former Chief Technological Officer for many years, started Redwood Materials in 2017. He sat down in an interview with CNBC to talk about the importance of battery recycling and shared an inside look at the first Redwood Materials recycling facility, which is in Carson City, Nevada. Straubel pointed out why the materials from old batteries are still as good as new.

“Batteries are amazing that way because the metals in the critical materials inside of them are very highly recyclable. We recover 95–98% of many of those critical materials like nickel and cobalt and copper. Essentially all of those metals are able to go back straight into reuse again and again.”

Straubel was the mastermind behind many of Tesla’s core technologies, especially those centered around battery technology. Although he started Redwood Materials in 2017, he didn’t leave Tesla until 2019. Eventually, though, he decided he wanted to put all of his focus into battery recycling. CNBC noted that Redwood Materials is already recycling tons of batteries and sending some of the recovered materials to Panasonic so it can put them right back into Tesla electric cars.

Celina Mikolajczak, the Vice President of Battery Technology at Panasonic Energy North America, also shared her thoughts in the interview. “We can’t just take all these really great minerals and just dump them. That would be criminal. I mean, we have to reuse them.”

Straubel spoke about why he started Redwood Materials. “We started this, you know, because I saw this looming problem from the end-of-life vehicles that we were creating and starting to have a deep appreciation back then for the scale of what was coming and the fact that, you know, I didn’t see anyone else getting ready for the scale of that problem. The sheer magnitude of the waste and scrap problem and the magnitude of batteries that need to get recycled is, I think, shocking to most people. There’s, I think, a really exciting opportunity to link the recycling and solving the end of life problem with the supply chain solution, bringing more materials back into the feedstock so it doesn’t bottleneck battery production.”

The demand for lithium-ion batteries is expected to grow from $44.2 billion last year to $94.4 billion by 2025, the video narrator noted. (Some of us think it will grow much faster.) This is is mostly due to the increased adoption and demand for electric vehicles.

Phil LeBeau, who interviewed Straubel, asked if there were enough materials to build all the EV batteries that are going to be required and Straubel replied, “Frankly, no. Not right this second. We don’t have enough materials in the supply chain to build everything today. So growth has to happen in the supply chain for all these vehicles. A lot more of that investment has to find its way to the top of the food chain to figure out where these materials will come from — investing in new mines, refining, and recycling.”

Mikolajczak also added her thoughts to this question. “We look at the materials that are in cells. These are metals that are very durable. And we took a lot of effort to get them out of the ground. It’s not like we have excess supply lying around that we can just pull to make cells from. Our excess supply is in the cells that have basically come to end of life and are ready for recycling. So we would be really foolish if we didn’t take advantage of the capacity of older cells to create the next generation.”

Panasonic produces 2 billion battery cells annually out of the Tesla Gigafactory in Nevada. Allan Swan, President at Panasonic Energy North America, added his thoughts. He noted that Giga Nevada’s battery cells just supply the Model 3 and Model Y (and not all of their global battery supply), and “we need somewhere between 20–25 of these all over the world. But particularly here in the United States, we certainly need at least 4 or 5 or 6 of these factories to support the wide automotive industry.”

Not many people think about the effort that goes into making batteries. Not only are the metals such as cobalt, nickel, and lithium mined from all over the world, but the raw materials travel over 20,000 nautical miles from the mine to the automaker — they have to be processed, put into cells, and put into battery packs. This supply chain is far from sustainable.

“Recycling has a very big role to play in the sustainability of electric vehicles themselves,” said Ram Chandrasekaran, Transportation and Mobility Principal Analyst at Wood Mackenzie. “One of the biggest sources of CO2 from an electric vehicle is from the mining and manufacturing side of battery packs. Mining for lithium is not a very CO2-friendly activity, so there will be a time where recycling of batteries for the metals that it needs is going to be a strong factor in helping EVs achieve carbon neutrality.”

The video pointed out the details of how those materials get to Tesla. They are mined in countries such as South America and then sent to China to be refined. Then sent to Tesla’s Giga Nevada for cell production at Panasonic. It also shared that another challenge looming in the near future for materials like lithium, nickel, cobalt, and copper is a significant shortage.

LeBeau asked whether or not current demand is outstripping supply five years down the road and Straubel agreed that this was correct, then elaborated on how worried he was about it. “I am pretty worried that this could become a bottleneck to electrifying everything that people are hoping to do. I think it’s going to be a bit painful when all of these factories try and ramp at the same time, and recycling and being able to efficiently reuse those materials can relieve some of the burden on the need for new mines or finding new resources.”

Straubel also touched upon the cost of EVs. “The cost of electric vehicles is dropping, but it’s still dominated by the cost of the battery. And within the battery, the biggest cost is the materials. It’s a fairly direct link to say that the way to reduce further the cost of EVs so that more and more people can afford them is to figure out how we attack that material cost inside the lithium-ion battery. And as the demand for electric cars continues to grow, it’s going to put more stress on those commodity markets. But our goal is to find a way to decouple that and provide those materials for use at a lower cost.”

You can watch the full interview here.

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