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Climate change

Inside a battery recycling facility

Battery materials will soon be short supply. Recycling facilities like one from Redwood Materials could help fill in the gaps.

October 5, 2022
aerial view of a battery recycling plant
Redwood Materials

This article is from The Spark, MIT Technology Review's weekly climate newsletter. To receive it in your inbox every Wednesday, sign up here.

Hello and welcome to the first-ever edition of The Spark!

Thanks so much for joining me for this weekly climate newsletter, where we’ll explore tech that could help combat the climate crisis. I’m so glad you’re here!

This week, we’re kicking things off with a special travel edition of the newsletter. So buckle up, because we’re headed to the mountains just outside Reno, Nevada to take a look inside a battery recycling facility.

Arriving in Reno felt like stepping into an old Western movie. Tumbleweeds blew across the road, and as I turned off the highway I spotted some of the area’s famous wild horses. But western Nevada is also home to tech powerhouses. The original Tesla Gigafactory is here, and less than ten miles away, my destination: a massive new battery recycling facility from Redwood Materials.

The startup is a hot topic in the electric vehicle world. Founded by ex-Tesla co-founder and CTO JB Straubel, Redwood has raised over $700 million dollars to recycle old batteries and produce materials for new ones. It’s signed deals with car manufacturers, battery giants, and even consumer retailers like Amazon.

Battery recycling could be more than just a landfill alternative for dead batteries. Some experts say that old batteries could be a significant source for some of the critical minerals that will be in short supply as demand for batteries skyrockets.

Recycling facilities could also be key in shifting the global power dynamics around battery supply chains. New EV tax credits in the US come with restrictions on material sourcing, so using materials recycled in the US could be a way for carmakers to ensure their vehicles qualify. For more on those tax credits, take a look at this piece I wrote on the topic.

Earlier this year, Redwood Materials announced that they were building a $3.5 billion battery recycling facility in Nevada. The company says that by 2025, the site will produce enough material each year to make about 100 gigawatt-hours worth of new batteries, the equivalent of about a million EVs. 

When I visited last week, construction was well underway, and the company plans to be up and running with some operations at the new facility by the end of the year. 

We walked around the site in safety vests and hard hats, first taking a look at the foundations and frame for the hydrometallurgical building, where sorted and crushed battery materials will go through a chemical process to isolate the most valuable metals: lithium, nickel, cobalt, and copper.

I also got to take a look inside a production building that's the furthest along on the site. Machines housed there will take recycled copper and produce copper foil, which Redwood will sell to battery makers. The machine, which should come online by the end of the year, was tucked away in a small corner of the building—there’s plenty of room for later expansion. 

We wrapped up our tour in a sprawling parking lot where Redwood is banking some of the batteries they’ve collected while they finish up construction. In total, it’s over 10 acres of boxes filled with laptops, EV modules, and even old toys. 

I’ve been fascinated by the stuff that makes up the energy transition—where we get it from, and where it goes. That issue is apparently front of mind for many of you too: every story I publish on a new type of battery (like this plastic battery, or this solid one) draws at least a question or two about the recycling prospects for that particular makeup. 

Stay tuned for much more about battery materials and recycling in an upcoming story, and let me know what questions you have about the topic in the meantime.

Climate Tech

I’ve got great news for you…Climate Tech starts one week from today! This is MIT Technology Review’s first ever climate event, and there’s still time to join us if you haven’t already signed up. 

Over the course of two days, Tech Review staff will be sitting down with all sorts of climate experts, from startup founders to policy wizards. It’s a great opportunity to learn about a huge range of climate technology and meet some of the people making change. 

There’s so much I’m looking forward to, but one session in particular that I have my eyes on is my colleague James Temple’s interview with Impossible Foods founder Patrick Brown. Food and agriculture represent one of those giant pieces of the climate puzzle where we still need to see plenty of innovation, and I can’t wait to hear what those two get into. For a preview, check out this 2020 Q&A from the pair. 

So register to join us, either live in Cambridge or online! Hope to see you there! 

Keeping up with climate

AI and robots are helping researchers build better batteries. Researchers used a machine learning model called Dragonfly and a robot called Clio to help them design new electrolytes for lithium-ion batteries. (Electrolyte is the liquid that helps move charge around in a battery.) Better electrolytes could mean faster charging for EVs. (MIT Technology Review)

The Nord Stream pipeline methane leaks are a climate disaster, but fossil fuels production emits more. The Russian pipelines have leaked about 300,000 metric tons of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Global oil and gas production emits that amount every 1.5 days. (Bloomberg $)

Another electric plane company is running test flights. Eviation’s prototype, Alice, took to the skies over Washington state last week. (Seattle Times) But batteries are still a long way from powering the planes of the future—for more on why, check out my article from August on the topic

Here's how communities should rebuild after Hurricane Ian. Climate change is making hurricanes more intense and more common—hurricane-prone areas can help limit future damage by building more shore defense, following smarter building codes, and in some cases, moving on. (New York Times $)

Just for fun

It’s officially fat bear week!! Each year, Katmai National Park in Alaska invites us all to judge which of their brown bears is plumpest. So make your voice heard—vote here, and enjoy this delightful data visualization from the Washington Post on just how fat these bears really are. 

That’s all folks! Thanks so much for reading, and if you have ideas or suggestions for this newsletter, feel free to drop me a line. Until next time!

Casey

Deep Dive

Climate change

These three charts show who is most to blame for climate change

Getting to the bottom of which countries have contributed most to climate change is complicated, but a few pieces of data can help.

Inside Alphabet X’s new effort to combat climate change with seagrass

A previously unrevealed program would use cameras, computer vision, and machine learning to track the carbon stored in the biomass of the oceans.

Super-hot salt could be coming to a battery near you

New battery chemistries can help unlock more renewable energy for the grid.

Cars are still cars—even when they’re electric

To tackle our climate challenges, we need smaller, safer EVs—and lots more transit options.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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