One of the Brains Behind Tesla May Have a New Way to Make Electric Cars Cheaper.

What’s the secret to building a more affordable electric vehicle? JB Straubel has an answer. It starts with a pile of old cellphones.
Almost every day old iPhones and other used personal electronics arrive by the truckload at a warehouse in Carson City, Nevada, where workers crack them open, pull out their batteries and strip them for raw materials.

Redwood Materials, the recycling startup founded by Tesla’s longtime CTO and co-founder JB Straubel, has landed Amazon as a new investor and customer.
Amazon’s investment in Redwood Materials is one of a handful announced that stems from the e-commerce giant’s $2 billion Climate Pledge Fund. Amazon announced that it would commit to invest $2 billion in sustainable technologies and services that will help it reach its commitment to have net-zero carbon operations by 2040.

Redwood already has customers on both sides of the business, Straubel said, although Panasonic and now Amazon are the only two that have been publicly named. Redwood is recycling the scrap from Panasonic’s battery cell manufacturing operation at the Reno Gigafactory it operates with Tesla in Sparks, Nevada. The company also has customers — that have yet to be named — on the consumer electronics side, Straubel said.

“We’re recycling and processing things as diverse as cell phone batteries, laptop computers, power tools, power banks, scooters and electric bicycles,” he said. “So it’s a kind of an amazing diversity of small- to mid-range applications that today really struggle to find a good solution. The recycling rates of those materials in particular are really atrocious in the market.”

JB Straubel, the Tesla co-founder and former CTO, is often cast as the humble and pioneering engineer, the quiet one who toiled away in the background for 15 years on some of the company’s most important technologies. That characterization — which intensified as the hype and media attention on Tesla CEO Elon Musk grew — tells a half truth.

Straubel isn’t prone to self-promotion, or even progress reports. His personal Twitter account, nor the one dedicated to his startup, Redwood Materials, has ever even tweeted. And he does like toiling away on complex problems.

But his understated delivery obfuscates his ambitions and plans for Redwood Materials, the recycling startup that he co-founded in 2017. Straubel envisions and is actively working to make Redwood one of the world’s major battery recycling companies, with numerous facilities strategically scattered throughout the globe.

“We’ve already dug these metals out of the ground, we’ve put them in cells, they’re sitting there,” Mikolajczak said during the joint interview with Straubel at TC Sessions: Mobility. “And yeah, it’s a little difficult to handle cells, they process a little differently than a typical metal ore, right, but at the same time, we have a much higher concentration of the metals we need than a typical metal ore. So it makes total sense to go after recycling and to do it aggressively because there’s a lot of it, there’s a lot of batteries already out in the world.”
Mr. Straubel, Tesla’s longtime chief technology officer, pioneered the lithium-ion battery powertrain design that helped propel the Silicon Valley company to what is now the highest valuation in the car industry. Since leaving Tesla, he has been trying to solve a problem created by that success: Where to find all the nickel, cobalt and lithium needed to make the batteries that power Tesla’s cars and their growing list of rivals.

Extracting those materials from nature, through mining and other processes, is costly and difficult, and production is lagging far behind expected demand. Mr. Straubel’s company, Redwood Materials, is taking a different tack, quietly aiming to build the biggest car battery-recycling operation in the U.S. The 44-year-old is betting that he can perfect a fast and efficient way of collecting and repurposing those materials to disrupt the centuries-old mining industry.

Straubel’s startup has been heavily recruiting from Tesla.
Andy Hamilton, a 10-year veteran at Tesla and longtime manufacturing engineer, announced that he left the automaker to go to Redwood.

The former Tesla CTO brought in Andrew Stevenson, who worked under him at the automaker, is now CFO of Redwood.
Last year, Redwood also brought in Kevin Kassekert, long-time head of infrastructure at Tesla and more recently the head of HR, as new Chief Operation Officer.

More recently, Redwood also hired Christ Ford, Tesla’s former Senior Manager Global Service Operations and Maintenance for Energy Products. The startup also poached several Tesla recruiters and HR people.
“Forever the entire market has been dictated by the commodity price of these metals. This is a chance to change that whole equation and to realize material cost savings in a way that short circuits that industry.”

JB Straubel believes that they can reach half the price of mined materials within 10 years.