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Tesla inspires another new industry – and it’s one South Africa could benefit from

Tesla inspires another new industry – and it’s one South Africa could benefit from

As Elon Musk has been improbably thrust into the status of the second-richest person alive as a result of his electric car company’s rising valuation, I came across an equally interesting business started by one of his Tesla co-founders: recycling batteries.

Toby Shapshak

Toby Shapshak is publisher of Stuff (Stuff.co.za) and Scrolla.Africa.

First appeared in Daily Maverick 168

As more and more electric cars are produced and sold (but seemingly not in South Africa, even though geeks like me are desperate to make an electric car my next purchase), so there will be more and more batteries that will one day need recycling.

One of the most notable of this new batch of start-ups looking to solve this problem is based in Carson City, about an hour south of Tesla’s massive Gigafactory, where cars and batteries are manufactured.

Started by Tesla co-founder and its chief technology officer until last year, JB Straubel, the company is Redwood Materials, “founded in 2017 with an ambition to become the anti-Gigafactory, a place where batteries are cooked down into raw materials that will serve as the grist for new cells”, according to a fascinating Wired feature on this entirely new business category.

Basically, to deconstruct a lithium-ion battery there are two processes, either essentially burning or boiling them into their components. Both are toxic, expensive and complicated. The burning process is called pyrometallurgy, while the boiling – or more technically placing the batteries in acid, which “leaches” their metals out of them – is called hydrometallurgy.

Redwood uses a combination of both of them, although it won’t say how, but claims to get 95% to 98% of the battery’s nickel, cobalt, copper, aluminium and graphite, and 80% of its lithium, according to Wired.

“We’re going to build a remanufacturing ecosystem for all those batteries. Material can get reused almost infinitely. There’s no inherent degradation to the metal atoms,” Straubel told the magazine.

Canadian company Li-Cycle only uses the leaching process, and sees huge opportunity in battery recycling. 

“Historically, batteries were viewed as waste, and we seek to turn that on its head by focusing on them as a resource,” its co-founder, Tim Johnston, told Wired.

He says his company is itself economically friendly. 

“We don’t produce any meaningful amounts of waste. We don’t produce any meaningful amount of air emissions, we don’t produce any waste water, and everything is done at a low temperature. The footprint is very small.”

I’m an ardent user of recyclable batteries, especially the endlessly required AA penlights. But, as cost-effective as they are, sometimes they just never seem to work. 

It was always with the baby thermometer, and usually somewhere in the middle of the night, that the newly charged rechargeables went flat after the second use. Maddeningly frustrating. Especially with a screaming child and a fever. 

That said, I’m just as sure it was the Braun thermometer I eventually returned because of its randomised approach to reading your temperature. Perhaps the only upside of the Covid lockdown was fewer viruses and therefore fevers because there was no contact with other snot monsters at that immune system booster called preschool.

These new companies looking to capitalise on a new potential industry in recycling lithium-ion batteries will hopefully inspire a similar interest in South Africa. Surely this is better than stealing Transnet’s cables (and whole train stations) and just what our crushed economy needs. 

South Africa is an ideal country to investigate battery recycling, given the expertise from Sasol and the mines. It could provide a much-needed new way to generate economic activity, not just here, but for the continent.

Tesla co-founder JB Straubel certainly seems to think so – and he built the actual cars. DM/BM


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