Technology

Why Battery Recycling Has Finally Reached Critical Mass

The world has been talking about recycling batteries for generations. We do it to some extent, but not nearly as much as we ought. That is about to change thanks to the push for electric vehicles (EVs). You might even say that battery recycling has finally reached critical mass.

Evidence of this is found at a Carson City, Nevada company known as Redwood Materials. The company was founded by Tesla co-founder J.B. Straubel. Redwood’s claim to fame is its recycling capabilities. They recycle everything from batteries to electronic devices. Straubel has plans to make Redwood the world’s top battery recycler with a special focus on EV batteries.

A Market Ready to Explode

The title of this post references critical mass. The term wasn’t chosen at random. In physics, critical mass is defined as the smallest amount of fissile material required to produce and sustain a nuclear chain reaction. A rather crude way of explaining it is to say that critical mass is the minimum amount of fissile material needed to detonate a nuclear bomb.

Again, this illustration was chosen with purpose. Why? Because the EV industry is an industry ready to explode. Tesla has figured out how to manufacture EVs with the range their customers want. Moreover, their cars are not glorified golf carts with no room and hardly any cargo capacity. They are full sized sedans comparable to anything powered with a gasoline engine.

Tesla plans to have a more budget friendly version of its most popular model ready for consumers in a year or two. The company’s co-founder and current CEO, Elon Musk, is betting heavily on battery technology to make that happen. Batteries are the most costly component of an EV, so bringing down the costs of battery production is critical. That is where Redwood comes in.

Recycle, Recover, and Reuse

Redwood’s plans are not all that unusual from a practical standpoint. Straubel and his team are simply following the standard recycle, recover, and reuse principle. There are plenty of raw materials contained inside lithium ion batteries that can be recovered and used again. Therein lies the goal.

At Salt Lake City’s Pale Blue Earth, lithium ion batteries are the heart and soul of their business model. Their USB rechargeable batteries are very similar to Tesla’s EV batteries in both physics and chemistry. Why does this matter? Because the same recycling methods that could drastically cut the cost of EV batteries could also be applied to consumer batteries.

This makes Redwood’s plans for the EV industry even more important. The more materials they can recycle, the less need there will be for harvesting the same raw materials from nature. That is good for both the planet and battery economics.

Recycle More, Mine Less

At the heart of lithium-ion battery recycling is lithium itself. Lithium is an alkaline metal and a chemical element. Though it is abundant in igneous rocks and mineral springs, it is exceptionally difficult to mine. Furthermore, mining leaves behind some level of environmental damage.

Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to mass produce electric vehicles without mining lithium. Thus, there are trade-offs. Mining lithium gives us a realistic shot at getting rid of internal combustion engines in favor of battery-powered cars and trucks. But the trade-off is the harm caused by mining. Figure out a way to recycle, recover, and reuse lithium from spent batteries and you reduce some of the impact.

Battery recycling has finally reached critical mass thanks to Tesla and the EV industry. Let us hope that Redwood turns out to be the catalyst that starts a sustained recycling chain reaction.

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