Recycling Lithium Batteries Will Provide Power for a "Green" Economy

Eric Sentell

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Solar panels in a field of wildflowersAndres Siimon on Unsplash

To transition to a "greener," more sustainable economy, experts believe we will need a mind-boggling number of lithium-ion batteries.

According to Alejandro de la Garza in Time, we will need to mine more lithium and cobalt than have been mined in the entirely of human history to create the necessary number of electric batteries.

Most of those metals reside in the soil of Asia, necessitating a 10,000-mile journey before American companies could use them to produce batteries.

Chinese companies, of course, could produce the batteries themselves and then ship them overseas. Either way, the future of electric batteries doesn't look very environmentally-friendly.

Tesla's co-founder, J.B. Straubel, founded the company Redwood Materials to help avert the coming shortage of materials for electric batteries.

Since leaving Tesla in 2019, Straubel has been working hard on building a massive facility outside of Reno, Nevada, to process and recycle old lithium-ion batteries.

Straubel describes a cycle of sustainability in a Time profile. As existing batteries wear out, facilities like Redwood Materials will recycle them. It will be a "closed loop" in which we reuse the same lithium, cobalt, and other metals in one battery after another, forever.

Redwood Materials has secured $775 million in venture capitalist funding and holds contracts with Ford, Panasonic, and (who else?) Tesla. The new battery-materials processing center occupies 175 acres and uses solar panels to off-set its energy use.

Redwood Materials also has an "ace" that no one else has: J.B. Straubel.

Though he didn't receive much credit and even less attention, Straubel provided the engineering insights and breakthroughs that made Tesla possible.

He led the engineering team that figured out how to keep lithium-ion batteries cool enough to not overheat and blow up Tesla vehicles. He spearheaded the development of the mechanics, software, charging station grid, and other projects that helped Tesla become Tesla.

So, why haven't you heard of Straubel before? Because he cares a million times more about solving the next engineering challenge than about getting any recognition or attention for those he's already solved. He gladly let Elon Musk suck up oxygen, while he quietly made Musk's success possible.

Rather than coasting on his success and working with Tesla's proven technology, Straubel moved on to Redwood Materials to develop new technology that the world needs.

And that's why I'm betting Redwood Materials will become the unheralded crown jewel of a green economy.

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