Although the transition to battery electric vehicles is still at an early stage, we are well aware of the need to recycle and reuse the precious metals and materials contained in lithium-ion batteries. Among US recyclers, Redwood Materials has emerged as a very competitive player, since it was founded in 2017 by JB Straubel.
Interestingly, Straubel said, his company's goal goes beyond recycling to bringing the battery supply chain from Asia to the United States.
Prior to Redwood, most American recyclers simply ground the batteries into a raw powder known as black mass for easy transportation. Then, they shipped those materials overseas to be refined and processed, according to Jeffrey Spangenberger, director of the Department of Energy's ReCell Center.
However, this process has two drawbacks: the environmental impact of transporting materials, and the dependence on foreign suppliers.
"We want to buy these materials once and then keep them here," Spangenberger said. "The recycler and the manufacturer together - if this can be done under one roof, we answer two questions at once."
The company wants to eliminate the 80,000 km (50,000 miles) supply chain of battery components needed for the final production of the EV battery in the United States. For this reason, Redwood pursues three types of processes: recycling, the manufacture of copper foil for anodes, and the production of cathodes. Recycling is already taking place at the plant in Carson City, Nevada, where the company is headquartered.
Redwood has also begun work on a second plant in Nevada to manufacture fine copper foil for anodes (the negative terminal of the battery), which is in short supply. However, the production of the cathodes (the positive terminal of the battery) is by far the most important plus.
Why is domestic production of cleaner cathodes important?
First, the cathode is the most expensive part of the battery. About 10% to 30% of the cathode is made of cobalt, priced at about $28,500 per ton. This makes cobalt the most expensive element at the cathode, which is more expensive than nickel, manganese, and aluminum combined.
Secondly, the cathode is also the most polluted part of the battery. Mining the raw materials that make up it, and transporting them abroad not only increases production costs significantly but also increases greenhouse gas emissions.
Redwood's plan is to integrate the cathode supply chain in the United States. Straubel is looking for a new site in Nevada to build a new one million square foot factory. He says the plant will produce enough cathode material for batteries of up to 100 gigawatts per year by the end of 2025.
This translates to about 1.3 million long-range vehicles annually, which matches the capacity of Asia's largest producers. The company's big goal means it can't rely solely on recycled items. Thus, its goal is to use 50% recycled raw materials and 50% raw materials. Currently, electric vehicle batteries account for less than 10% of Redwood's recycling stock, but discontinued batteries from consumer electronics are plentiful.
However, even with 50% recyclable materials, consolidating the supply chain in the United States would have a very positive environmental impact. According to a Bloomberg report, it will reduce emissions from battery manufacturing by at least 41%.
Straubel believes that in the coming decade recycled materials will be used for nearly 100% of the world's battery production. And if he's right, not only will batteries become more expensive, but their production as well - which still raises concerns.