Electric cars take off, but when will battery recycling follow?
“We are weaning our entire society off carbon-intensive and fossil fuels – we cannot underestimate the scale of this challenge,” said Gavin Harper, a researcher at the University of Birmingham in England who studies recycling. batteries. “The demand is going to be so huge.”
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But despite all that optimism, this new venture faces a daunting challenge: Few batteries will be available for recycling for a decade or more. Tesla, which dominates the electric vehicle industry, started selling cars in 2008 and until 2017 sold less than 100,000 cars a year. There are other sources to recycle today, including hybrids and consumer electronics, but supply is limited and collection can be difficult.
This has left recycling companies in a difficult position. They must invest in factories, machines and workers or risk losing ground to their competitors. But if they invest too quickly, they could run out of money before many aging batteries hit their charging docks.
“You have people who are just burning money, because you don’t have the raw material to be able to make the material to sell,” said Eric Frederickson, chief operating officer of Call2Recycle, a nonprofit program. non-profit that helps recyclers find old batteries.
Companies must also determine how to find, collect and dismantle batteries. They have to work with many dismantlers, junkyards and non-profit groups. And because batteries are prone to fire and packaged and constructed differently from model to model, taking them apart can be complicated and dangerous.
Among battery recycling companies, Redwood stands out. The company was founded by JB Straubel, a former top Tesla executive, and has raised more than $1 billion from investors, he said. Redwood sees itself primarily as a producer of battery materials – made from reclaimed or mined metals – and has established recycling partnerships with Ford Motor, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo. Redwood also recycles waste from a battery plant operated by Panasonic and Tesla near Reno, Nevada.
On flat, dusty ground near this factory, Redwood built a 175-acre campus. There, the company recovers metal from old batteries and produces materials for new ones. Redwood announced last week that it would spend at least $3.5 billion on another campus in South Carolina, in an area of the country that is rapidly becoming a hub for battery and electric vehicle production.