Electric cars are gaining popularity, but when will battery recycling follow?

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

But for all the optimism, this new business faces a daunting 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 fewer than 100,000 cars a year. Today, there are other sources of recycling, including hybrids and consumer electronics, but supply is limited and collection can be a challenge.

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

“You have people just burning money because you don’t have the raw materials to be able to produce the material to sell,” said Eric Frederickson, managing director of operations for Call2Recycle, a nonprofit program that helps recyclers find old batteries.

Companies also need to understand how to find, collect and disassemble batteries. They have to work with many dismantlers, scrap yards and non-profit organizations. And because batteries are prone to fires and are packaged and constructed differently from model to model, disassembling them can be complicated and dangerous.

Among battery recycling companies, Redwood stands out. The company was founded by JB Straubel, a former top Tesla executive, and has raised more than $1 billion from investors, the release 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 plant operated by Panasonic and Tesla near Reno, Nevada.

On a flat, dusty stretch of land near the plant, Redwood is building a 175-acre campus. There, the company recovers metal from old batteries and produces 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 hub for battery and electric vehicle manufacturing.

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