The electric car whose ecological praises are sung still has a long way to go when it comes to the recyclability of its batteries. This is the path that Jeffrey Brian Straubel, former CTO of Tesla embarked upon, by founding his own company in 2017, Redwood Materials, based in Carson City, Nevada (USA).
At a conference held on October 8, 2020, JB Straubel declared his ambition to make his start-up the world leader in recycling electric batteries alongside two partners, the Japanese Panasonic Corps and Amazon. In September 2020, Amazon had indeed decided to invest in Redwood Materials via its green fund "Climate Pledge Fund" endowed with 2 billion dollars.
1 gigawatt-hours of batteries recycled by Redwood
Is JB Straubel driven by the desire to reduce the environmental and social impact of mining or does he anticipate the depletion of rare metals? What is certain is that its goal is to create a closed loop on battery metals by planning to create the largest recycling plant in the United States.
The Redwood Materials site explicitly displays 11 metals sought in recycled batteries such as lithium, nickel, copper and gold. Among these 11 metals, you will find 3 (cobalt, tantalum, neodymium) on the European Commission's list of critical resources. Nickel, which is not on this list but also sought after by Redwood Material, is particularly threatened by shortage risks for years to come. The post-COVID electric craze has not finished reshuffling the availability of metals essential for electric batteries.
Redwood Materials says it will have recycled the value of 1 gigawatt-hour of battery by 2020, or the equivalent of 100 Tesla cars. A still paltry figure compared to the record sales of 180,000 Tesla in 2019, which will also have to be recycled. Largely the leader in electric car sales, Tesla had a 28% market share in the same year.
Below, the evolution of the production of lithium-ion batteries with their destination. Source: Bloomberg.
Tesla in the battery metal race
It would have been surprising if pioneer Tesla did not anticipate the rush for battery metals. Elon Musk’s brand is stepping up projects in this direction. Tesla's Gigafactory 1 in Nevada is working on ways to recover critical minerals from electric batteries, including lithium, cobalt, aluminum, copper and steel. At the end of September 2020, Tesla also acquired a lithium mine that would allow it to reduce the cost of its batteries by 50% but also to vertically integrate its production. Still with a view to optimizing batteries, including their components, Elon Musk announced Wednesday, September 7 that his future electric cars produced in Berlin, the Model Y, will be equipped with cells using less cobalt (but more nickel) and replacing graphite with silicon, more abundant and less expensive. These cells, called "4680 cells", will reduce the price of batteries which are now more than half that of an electric car.