Electric vehicles have been coming for more than a decade; now they are starting to go as well.
Like wind turbines and nuclear fuel rods, car batteries don’t last forever. Today, 13 years after the 2008 Tesla Roadster made its debut, a first generation of EVs is nearing retirement. The cars, and their 1,000-pound battery packs, are creating a mountain of electronic scrap.
Several entrepreneurs have begun pulling those batteries out of the pile, cracking them open, and cooking them down to recover cobalt, lithium, nickel, and other raw ingredients that can be recycled almost endlessly.
It’s an expensive and laborious endeavor—like building an EV was 20 years ago. It’s also on the cusp of massive growth. J.B. Straubel, a co-founder of Tesla who now runs Redwood Materials, a battery recycling enterprise in Nevada, calls this “unmanufacturing.”
“This is a decidedly not very sexy business,” he says. “But it’s about to become incredibly relevant.” Redwood, along with Canada startup Li-Cycle, is joining existing recyclers such as Belgian chemicals giant Umicore and China’s GEM, which has automated disassembly lines for spent packs.
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