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Former Tesla CTO speaks out on issue with rise in production of EVs: 'It would fundamentally be impossible'

"There's just a whole ton of chemistry, chemical engineering, and production engineering that has to happen."

battery recycling, JB Straubel

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JB Straubel, former Tesla CTO, has set out on his own into an industry he sees as vital for the future: battery recycling.

When Straubel worked at Tesla, he made major contributions to the company's battery technology, he told MIT Technology Review.

Drawing on that experience, he left in 2019 to found his battery recycling company, Redwood Materials. So far, he's raised over $1 billion for the venture and has started construction on his first facility in Nevada.

Straubel started Redwood Materials because the world is turning more and more to electrical systems, he told MIT Technology Review. He predicts that to slow the overheating of our planet, most future technology is going to rely on electricity instead of dirty energy like coal and oil — which means we'll need more batteries. 

To make sure manufacturers can supply that demand, Straubel says we will need to create a "closed loop" for battery materials. 

"There aren't enough new raw materials to keep building and throwing them away; it would fundamentally be impossible," he explained. Instead, Straubel says around 99% of the rare metals that go into a battery can be extracted and used again.

However, the problem isn't as simple as cracking open a used battery for parts. 

"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," Straubel said. "It's not just a sorting or garbage management problem."

Another complication Straubel faces is that electric vehicles and solar-powered houses are only starting to gain momentum. This means there aren't many used batteries to recycle yet. 

Straubel says his company is preparing for the long term, "where recycled material content is the majority of supply," by engineering more efficient recycling solutions.

"But in the meantime, we're taking a pragmatic view. We have to blend in a certain amount of virgin material," he told MIT Technology Review. "I really see our position as a sustainable battery materials company."

If Straubel is successful, he'll make it easier than ever to use more affordable, less polluting energy solutions like electric cars and solar power. 

Not only will this help buyers save money, but it's also good news for the environment since these types of electrical systems don't release the heat-trapping gases that warm the planet. 

Straubel has a strong sense of urgency about this issue, saying, "I generally don't think we're going fast enough. I don't think anyone is."

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