Tesla’s battery genius may hold the key to a closed-loop recycling endgame

Tesla Gigafactory Nevada battery cell production line (Credit: Super Factories)

Last year, a proverbial bomb dropped on Tesla after CTO and co-founder JB Straubel announced that he was transitioning into an advisor role and stepping away from his day-to-day duties in the company. While Straubel assured investors that he was not “disappearing” from Tesla in his final earnings call, he did stay notably under the radar following his departure. But as the date for the electric car maker’s Battery Day draws closer, it appears that some pieces are slowly falling into place suggesting that JB Straubel’s company, Redwood Materials, and Tesla, may be coming together at a key junction. 

To state that JB Straubel was the backbone of Tesla’s industry-leading battery tech is no understatement. Much of the company’s breakthroughs in its battery-related efforts, such as the construction of Gigafactory Nevada, would not have been possible without Straubel’s genius. In fact, so notable were his contributions to Tesla’s battery tech in the company’s early days that he was eventually considered as a co-founder of the electric car maker. 

But even during his last years at Tesla, Straubel has remarked that one key aspect remains missing from the EV transition — closed-loop battery recycling. Battery electric vehicles are great in the way that they are zero-emissions, after all, but disposing of their batteries at their end-of-life presents notable challenges under closed-loop recycling is developed. “Ultimately what we want is a closed-loop, right, at the Gigafactories that reuses the same, recycled materials,” he remarked at Tesla’s 2018 Annual Shareholders Meeting. 

Former Tesla CTOJB Straubel. (Credit: Tesla)

Prior to his departure from his day-to-day duties at Tesla, reports emerged stating that Straubel had founded a stealthy battery recycling startup called Redwood Materials. Interestingly enough, Redwood centered its operations in Nevada, the same state that hosts Tesla’s biggest battery facility to date, Gigafactory 1. When reports about Redwood initially emerged in 2018, however, Straubel was quick to note that his recycling startup’s operations are “unrelated to Tesla or to the Gigafactory directly.” 

A recent report from The Wall Street Journal has now revealed some notable details that may explain some aspects of Straubel’s statement back in 2018. According to the publication, Redwood has already convinced Panasonic, Tesla’s battery partner at Gigafactory Nevada, to utilize Redwood’s technology to reclaim scrap from its operations in the facility. Panasonic reportedly started with a trial run that involved Redwood reclaiming more than 400 pounds of scrap from its Giga Nevada operations. The Japanese firm appears to have been satisfied with Redwood’s results in the trial run, as Panasonic reportedly upped its contract with the startup to 2 tons not long after. 

Today, the Journal stated that all of the scrap coming from Panasonic’s side of Gigafactory Nevada’s battery production activities are being shipped to Redwood Materials for recycling. In a way, Redwood’s partnership with Panasonic seems to fit Straubel’s statement back in 2018, when he noted that his startup has no direct relation to Tesla’s operations. That being said, it is evident that Redwood’s tech is a notable step forward towards JB Straubel’s vision of a closed-loop battery recycling system. 

Tesla Gigafactory 1, where Model 3 battery cells are produced. (Photo: Tesla)

Straubel’s plans for Redwood are ambitious, as he is looking to develop a recycling process that is so efficient that batteries coming from retired electric vehicles and energy storage units could be quickly stripped down, recycled for their core materials, and used to rebuild new batteries. With such a system in place, a closed-loop is created, and hardly any materials are lost. It’s a lofty goal, but it does hint at Straubel’s understated determination that made him such a powerful background force in Tesla.

Interestingly enough, Tesla’s new Impact Report specifically includes a section about closed-loop battery recycling. According to the electric car maker, such a setup at Gigafactory Nevada “presents a compelling solution to move energy supply away from the fossil-fuel based practice of take, make and burn, to a more circular model of recycling end-of-life batteries for reuse over and over again. From an economic perspective, we expect to recognize significant savings over the long term, as the costs associated with large-scale battery material recovery and recycling will be far lower than purchasing and transporting new materials.” 

It remains to be seen if JB Straubel’s Redwood Materials and Tesla are indeed working together to recycle batteries from Gigafactory 1 and perhaps even the electric car maker’s own Roadrunner program, but despite the lack of confirmation for now, one thing is certain. One of the brightest minds in Tesla, who is arguably the genius behind the company’s battery tech and initiatives, has started a thriving company that fills in the crucial gap of battery recycling. And with such a key innovation at its doorstep, it appears out of character for Tesla to simply ignore the opportunities presented by Redwood Materials and its battery recycling technologies. 

Tesla’s battery genius may hold the key to a closed-loop recycling endgame
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