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This is where Tesla’s former CTO thinks battery recycling is headed

I think this entire new sustainable economy as we’re envisioning it, with everything electrified, simply can’t work unless you have a closed loop for the raw materials. There aren’t enough new raw materials to keep building and throwing them away; it would fundamentally be impossible.

Battery recycling is an intuitive solution to those two issues, but tell me more about the technical challenge of pulling it off, and how it would work.

It’s more complicated than I think many people appreciate. There’s just a whole ton of chemistry, chemical engineering, and production engineering that has to happen to make and refine all of the components that go into a battery. It’s not just a sorting or garbage management problem.

There’s a lot of room for innovation, and these things haven’t been well optimized, or even done at all in some cases. So that’s really the fun stuff as an engineer, where you get to invent and innovate things that haven’t been done two, three, four times already.

But something that isn’t intuitive is just what a high level of reusability the metals inside of a battery have. All of those materials we put into a battery and into an EV don’t go anywhere. They’re all still there. They don’t get degraded, they don’t get compromised—99% of those metals, or perhaps more, can be reused again and again and again. Literally hundreds, perhaps thousands of times.

I don’t believe we’re appropriately internalizing how bad climate change is going to be.

JB Straubel

There are not going to be a lot of electric vehicles coming off the roads for a long time. How are you thinking about navigating that and facing shortages in your supply of used batteries?

I really see our position as a sustainable battery materials company. One of our key objectives and goals is to look at the very long term and to make sure we’re architecting the most efficient systems for the long term, where recycled material content is the majority of supply.

But in the meantime, we’re taking a pragmatic view. We have to blend in a certain amount of virgin material—whatever we can get in the most environmentally friendly way—to augment the ramp-up while we need to transition away from fossil fuels.

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