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Climate change and energy

Why you might recycle a battery—and how to do it

Why I’ve spent months of my life thinking about trash.

January 19, 2023
copper sheet moving on a production line as seen from below
Redwood Materials plans to sell copper foil and other battery components partly made from recycled materials.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.

When strangers find out that I’m a climate technology reporter, they often have a lot of questions for me, or concerns to share. Some have heard that birds fly into wind turbines. Or that too many charging EVs will cause power outages.

Some of these questions are overblown, but sometimes, in one of these questions, someone will hit on one of the real challenges of climate technologies.

That second bucket is where I’d put most things I hear about the physical stuff critical to the energy transition. What do we do with solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries when we’re done with them? And where are we going to get enough of the materials we need to make new ones? 

Concerns about the origins and fate of these materials deserve to be taken seriously, which is why I’ve spent the last few months thinking a lot about one of this year’s 10 Breakthrough Technologies: battery recycling. I hope you’ll read the feature story I put together, but first let’s take a quick look at why this topic has lived rent-free inside my brain for so long. 

As I wrote about a few weeks ago in the newsletter, batteries are key to both electric vehicles and energy storage on the grid. So more EVs and more support for renewable energy will mean we’ll need more batteries.

This new demand presents two related problems. First, we need to find enough metals to make all those batteries—and mining can be destructive for people and the environment, as well as downright expensive. Second, since batteries will last a finite amount of time, they’ll eventually become trash that we’ll need to deal with. 

You see where I’m going with this … battery recycling could be the piece that closes the loop. If we can turn old batteries into new ones, we solve both the materials supply problem and the trash problem. 

It’s just a question of actually pulling it off.

The good news is that batteries are, at least in theory, good candidates for recycling: the metals inside them are valuable and don’t really degrade much over time, so they can be reused over and over again. Today, the lead-acid batteries in gas-powered cars are among the most highly recycled products in the world. (Other household batteries can be recycled too, so do check before tossing them out.)

Lithium-ion batteries, which are used in EVs, are a more recent invention; they came into the picture in the 1990s in small electronic devices before finding a market in electric vehicles. As their use has grown, so too have efforts to recycle them. 

Recycling companies’ processes all look about the same to an outside observer. Batteries are disassembled and crushed up, and the resulting powder is dissolved before being subjected to various chemical techniques. But the details will be a key deciding factor in how much of the valuable materials recyclers can recover, and therefore how much money they can make. 

Thanks to advances in these processes, the prospects for building a business around battery recycling have improved. The same dynamic is going on in solar panel recycling, where companies are working to recover silver and other expensive materials from the devices. 

On a personal level, I think finding ways to recycle and repurpose materials in order to cut down on waste and destructive mining is a worthwhile goal in itself. But profitability is a surefire way to make battery recycling more likely to happen. 

We’re still in the early days of battery recycling. China has funded and encouraged a massive industry, and now Europe and North America are catching up, with companies raising  hundreds of millions of dollars in investments and building multibillion-dollar facilities.

For my deep dive into battery recycling, I took a look at one of these companies, Redwood Materials. If you want to learn more about what Redwood is trying to do, or the challenges the company is facing, check out my feature story that came out yesterday. I also got to speak with JB Straubel, founder of Redwood Materials and former chief technology officer at Tesla, about where he thinks the industry is headed. You can find an edited version of our conversation here

Keeping up with Climate

Climeworks announced that it’s begun removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at its Orca plant in Iceland. (Wall Street Journal)

→ The plant may not be big, but this is a major step for carbon removal, which was one of our breakthrough technologies in 2022. (MIT Technology Review)

The western US is seeing record snowfall. Don’t expect it to make a dent in the drought, though. (Grid News)

Sublime Systems raised $40 million to help develop its low-carbon cement technology. (Bloomberg)

→ Using electricity for heavy industry could help reduce climate impacts from “hard-to-solve” sectors. (MIT Technology Review)

The cooking oil used for your french fries today could power your flight tomorrow. Ride along with collectors that gather grease for use in new aviation fuels. (Canary Media)

→ New fuels will be key in cutting emissions from air travel. (MIT Technology Review)

The Hummer EV, weighing in at about 9,000 pounds, is fueling backlash against electric trucks and SUVs. Critics say massive vehicles, electric or not, are dangerous and wasteful. (E&E News)

A new project that will pump air deep underground could help store renewable energy on the grid. (LA Times)

It was supposed to be the UK’s Tesla. But without enough funding or customers, Britishvolt went bankrupt. (Wired)

Deep Dive

Climate change and energy

The problem with plug-in hybrids? Their drivers.

Plug-in hybrids are often sold as a transition to EVs, but new data from Europe shows we’re still underestimating the emissions they produce.

Harvard has halted its long-planned atmospheric geoengineering experiment

The decision follows years of controversy and the departure of one of the program’s key researchers.

Why hydrogen is losing the race to power cleaner cars

Batteries are dominating zero-emissions vehicles, and the fuel has better uses elsewhere.

Decarbonizing production of energy is a quick win 

Clean technologies, including carbon management platforms, enable the global energy industry to play a crucial role in the transition to net zero.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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