Is Tesla Co-Founder J.B. Straubel Becoming The King of Batteries?

Tesla has been pushing the boundaries of what can be done with electric vehicles, but what most people don’t realize is that building one of the most advanced electric vehicles on the market has been a catalyst for hundreds of other innovations. Maybe thousands. Many of them required to meet the demands of a highly sophisticated car market.

Elon Musk and Tesla CTO J.B. Straubel knew at the outset, that it wasn’t enough to build a desirable ‘electric vehicle’,It had to stand head and shoulders above it’s fossil fuel powered counterparts, while promising to contain the most advanced technology ever assembled in a car. The Washington Post has gone so far as to say Tesla cars are like an ‘iPhone on Wheels’ which have brought strategies pioneered by Apple to the auto industry, with innovations in software, AI, camera technology and a complete application ecosystem, to mention just a few.

Tesla Battery Assembly.

But perhaps the greatest technological leap forward may be in the battery technology used to drive them. Many engineers predicted this was the biggest bottleneck in the development of a reliable electric vehicles, but Tesla has proven it is possible. Current Tesla batteries can run for 370miles without needing to stop for a charge, leaving many competitors to ramp of production for their own electric vehicle line-up. And as other car manufacturers are scrambling to catch up, Tesla continues to innovate, as with their new lithium-ion battery the 4680, hailed by Tesla CEO Elon Musk as the key to cheaper electric cars (the 468 name refers to the battery’s diameter and height, ad 46mm and 80mm respectively).  Japanese tech giant Panasonic has confirmed it will begin manufacturing trials in the coming weeks, and confirmed plans to set up a prototype production line early this year.

The year 2022 and onwards seem to be pushing EVs as the standard vehicle to own, with current projections reaching about 58% of all passenger vehicle sales being electric. In the current race to get as many EVs out on the road, it’s important to keep in mind how current production schedules are attempting to meet this massive demand and the current lack of protocols in place once the batteries in those cars eventually go bust.

There are individuals who are at the forefront of this technological revolution, pushing vehicle tech capabilities forward and leading the way. With battery technology, it’s J.B Straubel, former CTO toTesla and current CEO of Redwood Materials, the latest company to take on the problem of EV batteries and turn towards circular production methods.

J.B. Straubel at a Tesla Media Event.

Who is J.B. Straubel?

J.B. Straubel may be familiar to those who have followed Tesla in the years since its inception in 2003, a key producer of electric vehicles and one of the biggest names in the automotive business today with a market cap of almost $1 trillion.  

Straubel was one of the initial founders ofTesla Inc., coming into the position of Chief Technical Officer in 2004alongside Elon Musk’s entry. During his tenure, Mr. Straubel was able to lead a key engineering team in the development of cell designs, supply chain management, as well as one of the first proponents for the Tesla Gigafactory.

After 15 years in Tesla, Straubel moved towards the development of RedwoodMaterials, his newest venture into understanding and developing the systems and technologies that work within electronic vehicles—specifically the EV battery. His new team in Redwood Materials is comprised of a myriad of different experts from a variety of industries such as lithium-ion manufacturers and chemical processing, all to better understand the processes in place for EV battery development as well as pushing the boundaries of the current value chain surrounding it.

What’s So Tricky About EV Batteries?

Despite the steady acceptance and growing market share of electric vehicles, many countries are finding that the development of the EV battery is proceeding at a much slower rate. As an example, the United States only currently produces around 59 gigawatt-hours (Gwh) annually, a tricky capacity issue not currently in line with the Biden administration’s goal of a fully EV America by 2040.

Moreover, while there are many different methods of recovering parts from engine blocks that traditional gas-powered cars use, there remains no exact widespread method to recycle and dispose of EV batteries once their estimated life of 10 years passes. Batteries like this are generally tricky, coming in much heavier and containing hazardous materials from the several housed lithium-ion batteries. Protocols for properly handling depleted batteries also differ across manufacturers and regions.

Batteries normally need specific electrode components known as an anode and a cathode. These two components make the“internal combustion” analogous component of an engine, both of which utilize rare earth materials not regularly available in the US. In fact, more than 80% of these product components come from Asia, leaving this key production aspect largely out of the hands of western car manufacturers.

Redwood Materials: Services towards Circular Economies

Anticipating the growing need and acceptance of fully electric vehicles in the United States, Straubel made it a goal to develop an not just an end-of-life solution for EV batteries, but a solution for the EV battery manufacturing gap that currently exists. “It’s both inspiring and terrifying to see so many nations and car companies announcing their shift to electric vehicles,” Straubel said, “But there’s a massive gap in what needs to happen.”

A large part of this business model focuses on adopting a circular production system, where outputs and “material waste” are reused as inputs for the development of new products. Going beyond traditional recycling methods, Straubel aims to include this circular framework in the overall value chain that Redwood Materials is currently developing.

Breaking Down Batteries

The first component of Redwood Materials is their recycling operation, which alongside business partnerships with key retailers, develops a foundational source for materials that are foundational to the circular value chain approach.

With partnerships developed with Panasonic,Best Buy, and Amazon, Redwood had developed a clear clientele base of retailers and firms that have direct access to waste material goods housing important EV battery materials. This allows Redwood Materials to access their partner’s respective production lines for lithium compounds, or even actual customers, where turned-iniPhones provide a rich resource for reusable cobalt, a key component in battery manufacturing.

Building Up Batteries

“With such a high level of battery demand expected over the next decade or so, the raw materials that go into those batteries are potentially going to be in short supply,” says Stephen Brown, a senior director at Fitch Ratings. Straubel’s vision to overcome this shortage is to move away from a traditional recycler business model, which has plagued many recycling companies that just end up grinding electric components into what is unofficially known as “black mass” that continues to pollute the environment, towards one that can properly utilize all the materials discarded by other firms.

In combining a manufacturing capability alongside a recycling business model, Redwood Materials is positioning itself within the market as a company that can meet the growing demand for EV batteries while procuring the components and materials needed in a sustainable and more efficient way through circular practices.

Beyond Just EVs

Redwood Materials isn’t limiting its capabilities towards the world of electric vehicles alone. The entire market involved in the procurement and usage of lithium batteries comprises sectors of renewable energy farms and manufacturing, holding the potential to further change value chain systems towards more sustainable practices.

Europe has begun developing large-scale renewable energy farms that can help manage electrical output along the central belt of Scotland, while Nevada (whereRedwood Materials is located) is looking to develop two more similarly-scaled solar projects to replace retiring coal power plants.

Food For Thought: The Rise of EVs in California

The ubiquity of electric vehicles is something that is becoming a bit more apparent in the coming years. In 2018, the US generated roughly 300,000in electric car sales, with almost half of these coming from the state ofCalifornia. Extrapolating this data further, analysts have estimated that, if the trend were to continue, California could see almost 4 million electric vehicles in the state alone.

Straubel, then, is in a prime location to take advantage of the eventual boom in demand, with Redwood Materials being only a few hours away in Carson City, Nevada. While it might be relatively early in the saga for electric vehicles, J.B. Straubel understands that being ahead can make all the difference, “We are working 24/7, literally around the clock, building facilities like the one behind us to make that supply chain happen and to try and get ahead of that bottleneck before it happens”.

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