Electric cars take off, but when will battery recycling come?

“We are weaning our entire society off fossil and carbon-intensive fuels – we cannot underestimate the magnitude of the challenge,” said Gavin Harper, a research fellow at the University of Birmingham in England who studies battery recycling. “The demand will be so enormous.”

But for all the optimism, this new business faces a formidable challenge: Few batteries will be available for recycling for a decade or more. Tesla, which dominates the electric vehicle business, started selling cars in 2008 and by 2017 was selling less than 100,000 cars a year. There are other sources for recycling today, including hybrids and consumer electronics, but supply is limited and collection can be challenging.

This has put recycling companies in a difficult position. You must invest in factories, machines and workers or risk losing ground to competitors. But if they invest too quickly, they could run out of cash before many aging batteries arrive at their loading docks.

“You have people just burning money because you don’t have the raw materials to make the stuff to sell,” said Eric Frederickson, the executive director of Call2Recycle, a nonprofit program that helps recyclers find old batteries.

Companies also need to figure out how to find, collect and disassemble batteries. You have to work with many dismantling companies, junkyards and non-profit associations. And since batteries are prone to fire and are packaged and constructed differently from model to model, disassembly can be complicated and dangerous.

Among the companies that recycle batteries, Redwood stands out. The company was founded by JB Straubel, a former top Tesla executive, and has raised more than $1 billion from investors, it said. Redwood sees itself primarily as a producer of battery materials – made from reclaimed or mined metals – and has established recycling partnerships with Ford Motor, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo. Redwood also recycles scrap from a battery factory operated by Panasonic and Tesla near Reno, Nev.

On a flat, dusty piece of land near this facility, Redwood is building a 175-acre campus. There the company recovers metal from old batteries and manufactures materials for new ones. Redwood announced last week that it would spend at least $3.5 billion on another campus in South Carolina, in a region of the country that is fast becoming a center for battery and electric vehicle manufacturing.

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