Nov 10, 2022 - Technology

Your old phone's battery could power your next car

Image of a person dropping a cellphone into a battery recycling box operated by Redwood Materials

Redwood Materials is collecting personal electronics to recycle into new electric vehicle batteries. Photo: Redwood Materials

Audi dealers are starting to collect household electronics such as old laptops and phones so they can be recycled into electric car batteries.

Why it matters: With global demand for lithium-ion batteries expected to grow by more than 500% in the next decade, it's one way to help seed creation of a domestic battery supply chain as envisioned under the climate, health cost reduction and tax law enacted in August.

The big picture: Long term, the auto industry is aiming to create a closed-loop supply of critical battery materials that can be reused in new batteries, reducing the need for imports and avoiding further environmental damage from mining.

What's happening: The consumer recycling program is a partnership between Volkswagen Group of America and Redwood Materials, a battery recycling startup that has been sounding the alarm about a shortage of battery minerals to meet EV demand.

  • Redwood is already partnering with the German automaker to recycle end-of-life batteries from VW and Audi electric cars. It has similar arrangements with Toyota, Ford, Volvo and others.
  • This is the first time an automaker is collecting household lithium-ion batteries and rechargeable devices that can be recycled domestically to create new electric vehicle batteries.

How it works: Lithium-ion batteries contain varying amounts of critical minerals such as cobalt, copper, nickel and lithium — metals that can be recycled almost infinitely.

  • Since the metals don't change or degrade, old devices can become new EVs without any performance or battery life tradeoffs, according to Redwood CEO J.B. Straubel, a co-founder of Tesla.

Yes, but: Less than 5% of rechargeable batteries in devices such as cell phones, laptops, e-bikes, e-scooters, electric toothbrushes, vacuum cleaners and power drills get recycled today — mostly because it's just not easy to do.

The bottom line: Redwood and Audi are trying to make recycling a whole lot easier, which could limit the need for mining, increase domestic manufacturing and make EVs cheaper — and more sustainable.

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