Tesla’s Approach to Recycling is the Way of the Future for Sustainable Production
Updated: I recently got to meet the legend himself and CTO of Tesla JB Straubel on the 25th of August, 2018. Fresh off the high from visiting the Fremont Factory during our UWA MBA Silicon Valley Study Tour & seeing our robot overlords (including Wolverine) I asked JB for further information on the Tesla recycling program — results below…
It is fascinating to watch how innovative companies that produce millions of products for consumers are really starting to embrace circular economy concepts. At the recent Q1 2018 Tesla financial report Jeffrey Straubel was asked the following question:
There is a lot of speculation about battery waste. What program does Tesla offer of support to recycle the soon-to-be millions of spent cells? @cand3ts
His response to this was a very passionate “Yes”. Tesla does recycle their cars. It is a waste of money not to.
We’ve talked about this a few times but Tesla will absolutely recycle and we do recycle all of our spent cells, modules and battery packs. So the discussion about this waste ending up in landfills is not correct. We would not do that. These are valuable materials in addition to it’s just the right thing to do.
We have current partner companies on every major continent where we have cars operating that we work with to do this today. And in addition we’re developing internally more processes and we’re doing R&D on how we can improve this recycling process to get more of the active materials back. And ultimately what we want is a closed loop right at the Gigafactory, that reuses the same recycled materials.
This isn’t impossible. We see a pathway to do it. That’s where we’re headed with this. Today we’re on the way to do that. It’s definitely something that will be a huge benefit to the long term cost as we’re able to reprocess more materials instead of actually having to mine new materials.
Jeffrey Brian Straubel, Q1 2018 Financial Report
You can see how Tesla is “closing the loop” in the following Gigafactory Process Flow diagram. Once the vehicles are produced and in super-satisfied customer hands, when they reach end of life, the raw materials are then processed and recycling into the making of new cars.
What’s in Tesla’s Batteries?
Before the giant Gigafactory in Nevada was built, Tesla’s batteries primarily manufactured in Japan and compliant to strict environmental law (RoHS standards). The batteries are mostly made from lithium metal oxides. Specifically, the anode from graphite, the electrolyte from lithium salts and the cathode from lithium, nickel, cobalt and aluminium (source, tx@syonyk). They do not contain nasties like lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, PBBs, and PBDEs. Tesla have stated in the past that there batteries are safe to be landfilled, however their Tesla battery recycling program does a lot better than that. (2009 Source)
So how much of Tesla’s batteries actually get recycled?
The Tesla vehicle batteries get recycled once once they reach end of life. Early estimates in 2000 (source) states that would be 100,000 miles (160,000 km’s), or 7 to 10 years of typical use. However, due to advances in battery production and management technology recent April 2018 statistics have found that “in 270,000 kilometers (168,000 miles), the average battery degraded less than 9 percent of its original capacity.” (source)
The fact that Tesloop’s Model S 90D, affectionately names “eHawk” has been in service since July 2015 and clocked up an astounding 400,000 miles (643,737 km) really means the sky is the limit. Of note, the eHawk went into Tesla servicing in January 2018 (@324,044 miles), where Tesla engineers conducted a diagnostic test, found the battery was “not functioning properly” and replaced the 90kw battery.
The truth is, no-one really knows the end of battery life estimate for Tesla lithium ion batteries. The likely result will be that at some Tesla-yet-to-be-determined-threshold the batteries get moved on and reused in less demanding (than a sports car) use cases such as inside Powerwalls for household/commercial infrastructure power.
The key stats (Source, 2000) for Tesla battery recycling are:
- 60% of Tesla’s batteries get recycled
- 10% get reused (battery case and some electrical components)
- All the fluff goes to landfill due to excessive costs in recycling it
Knowing that Tesla is a serious innovator, in fact it places this as a competitive advantage over other car companies, I would say these dated statistics will be way higher now as they reach greater recycling efficiencies in their Gigafactory recycling processes.
Furthermore, as there is a giant slab of batteries in every Tesla that weigh approximately 1000 pounds (454 kg’s) it is far easier to apply recycling processes to it. Whereas traditional consumer product batteries such as those found in mobile phones and laptops often end up in landfill due to complex and expensive sorting facilities.
Tesla Battery Swapping Stations?
In the future it may be possible to simply drive (or let the car do that too) to your local Tesla service centre and in a matter of minutes your entire battery tray is replaced with brand new batteries, with Tesla putting the old batteries through their recycling program. Tesla even patented the idea in 2017. The point is, Tesla will make it so convenient for the batteries to be recycling and they will cut their costs and decrease waste in doing so.
So what do Tesla battery components actually get recycled into?
- Electronics are removed, tested and reused. Wires and metals are recycled locally, with large sums of electronics modules sent off to the Toxco Materials Management Center.
- Lithium modules are frozen with liquid nitrogen to prevent further chemical reactions. From there they are shredded and crushed into tiny pieces for further screening and separation into fluff, cobalt, copper and slurry. Specifically, the copper cobalt is sold to recovery centres to be broken down into cobalt, nickel, copper and aluminium. The slurry is reused for appliance coatings.
- Propylene Glycol is recycled locally after it is removed from the cooling tubes.
In another report from the Tesla website (2011) it states that in North America they work with Kinsbursky Brothers to recycle about 60 percent of the battery pack and for Europe they work with Umicore.
What’s cool about Umicore is they have a fully closed loop recycling system where they can save at least 70% of CO2 emissions during the recovery and refining process. It does this by creating “products” and “byproducts,” rather than following a mechanical separation process.
Turning battery leftovers into Construction Material
Although Tesla isn’t doing this solo, they have chosen to work with Umicore for the European operations. With 5% percent of the global man-made CO2 emissions worldwide being produced by cement manufacturing, Umicore replaces this raw construction material with secondary material, avoiding thermal processing and reducing CO2 emission and non-renewable resource consumption.
Tesla has found that partnering with environmentally conscious recyclers, they are able to recycle their battery packs profitabily (without unsustainable government incentives). They are ultimately trying to recycle the product back to the original raw materials so the material flows in a true circularly loop.
Specifically, the metals can be reused in the battery cells and any plastics can be reclaimed and used to mold new plastic parts for our vehicles. The technology to enable this is available today — and it’s profitable! We already reuse cobalt in the batteries. The overall closed loop recycling system becomes possible, and much more efficient, once the quantities rise to a level to justify the investment for recycling of the other components — especially the plastic.
Why would a manufacture/producer bother recycling?
In the US, Tesla has advised they will setup an exchange system (TBC) where customers get credits for returning their used battery modules. Toxco handles large scale lithium ion battery recycling, with initial costs of operation at $4.50/lb ($10/kg) and has since decreased to <$2.25/lb (<$5/kg).
The big question here, is at what point do economies of scale allow decrease the cost for producers/manufacturers to choose recycled battery materials over raw battery materials?
The average price of a lithium-ion battery pack in 2017 was $209/kilowatt-hour and are set to decrease to below $100/kWh by 2025 (BNEF Survey).
For our raw calculation using 2017 prices, a traditional battery pack weighs 800 lb and is 30-kWh, at $209/kWh it would cost $6270. In 2025, it is predicted to cost $100/kWh resulting at a cost of $3000.
Recycling operations using our Toxco estimates of $2.25/lb would cost would cost $1800/battery. We then need to know more information around costing, to convert these secondary materials back into usable batteries again.
I posed the question at the event, “How to use technology to achieve the impossible?”
My question is about recycling and sustainability. So now that Tesla’s are becoming mainstream and you are selling 100’s of 1000’s of cars, it’s using a lot of materials to build those cars. My question is, what’s the percentage of end of life Tesla Roadster 1’s that are coming back in, are you actively working on recycling them, and the raw materials that you are using to build new cars, is the recycled materials actually cheaper?
However, after asking this exact question to the CTO of Tesla at the recent Silicon Valley event hosted by Hundun University “How to use technology to achieve the impossible?” it became clear that none of the Tesla products are actually end of life yet.
The components that make up an electric car literally stay in the car for the lifetime of the vehicle which may be between 15 to 20 years. As the Tesla Roadster 1 was announced October 2007 with production starting in February/March of 2008, these vehicles are not due to reach end of life until 2023–2028.
The metals, the battery and the electronics of vehicle are all ready to be recycled, however due to literally a handful of cars coming back at this early stage during the initial vehicle life cycle, Tesla hasn’t had the ability to recycle & reuse the parts at high volume.
A known success story — sealed lead acid batteries from 20 years ago
Recycling batteries isn’t a new problem. This happened 20 years ago when the automotive industry had a desperate need to recycle lead-acid 12 volt starter batteries. Since then, adequate collection measures and encouraging regulations have turned this problem into a profitable recycling process.
The recovered lead-acid batteries get crushes into coin-sizes pieces and separated into like parts, with plastics being reprocessed into new products, the purified lead sent back to battery manufactures for reuse.
EPA estimate 90% of lead-acid batteries are recycled, with each battery containing between 60% to 80% recycled materials.
JB added to this, by stating that lead acid batteries are a closed loop system, where new lead acid batteries are made out of old lead acid batteries. The polypropylene in the case, the sulfuric acid in the electrolyte, the lead in the plates and in the anodes and cathodes are all reprocessed and rebuilt into new batteries. Recycling lead acid batteries are by far the cheapest way to make new lead acid batteries as the majority of the materials are recycled, rather than mined, transported to processing facilities and forged from virgin materials.
Fun fact: In fact, Tesla also recycle their leather seats to make Apple iPhone cases.
You can read more about the Tesla Closed Loop Recycling Program here:
As we work to lessen global dependence on petroleum-based transportation and drive down the cost of electric vehicles, we are committed to instituting a closed loop battery recycling system. A closed loop of material use involves manufacturing of battery cells, assembly into battery packs, then vehicles, and finally, recycling into raw materials for future use.
What I can do is quote JB from this awesome session, “Lithium-ion [batteries] is at a different phase of its growth, we’re ramping so quickly and the life cycle is so long, that we don’t have that closed loop yet, but we will, it’s just a matter of time.”
Just to finish up, it is amazing to see innovative companies who have a focus on sustainability and the environment, who are truly disrupting the world. In the year 2019 Tesla will cause more disruption as they announce/release their future products such as the 2019 Tesla Roadster, the electric Semi truck and the Model Y.
Sustainable Producers and the Tradr Marketplace
In the near future we will release our Tradr Whitepaper, where we will display our “Master Plan” to the world. Stay tuned!
I reserve the right to update this articles key stats when updated information becomes available. This article has been updated in light of attending JB’s information session in Silicon Valley: