“We’re weaning our entire society off fossil fuels and carbon-dense — we can’t underestimate the scale of this challenge,” said Gavin Harper, a research fellow at the University of Birmingham in England who studies battery recycling. “The demand will be absolutely enormous.”
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But for all the optimism, this new business faces an enormous challenge: Few batteries will be available for recycling for a decade or more. Tesla, which dominates the electric car business, started selling cars in 2008 and as of 2017 sold less than 100,000 vehicles annually. There are other sources of recycling today, including hybrids and consumer electronics, but supply is limited and collection can be difficult.
This has left recyclers in a difficult position. They need to invest in plants, machinery and workers or risk losing ground to competitors. But if they invest too quickly, they could run out of money before a lot of old batteries reach their loading docks.
said Eric Fredrickson, managing director of operations for Call2Recycle, a nonprofit program that helps recyclers find old batteries.
Companies also have to know how to find, collect and disassemble batteries. They have to work with many breakers, junkyards, and non-profit groups. Because batteries are prone to fires and are packaged and made differently from model to model, taking them apart can be complicated and dangerous.
Among the battery recycling companies, Redwood stands out. The company was founded by JB Straubel, a former senior Tesla executive, and has raised more than $1 billion from investors, the company said. Redwood considers itself primarily a producer of battery materials — made from recovered or mined minerals — and has established recycling partnerships with Ford Motor, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo. Redwood also recycles scrap from a battery plant operated by Panasonic and Tesla near Reno, Nev.
On a flat, dusty lot near that factory, Redwood is building a 175-acre campus. There, the company recovers metal from old batteries and produces materials for new batteries. 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 fast becoming a center for battery and electric car production.
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