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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.

“This is something that is a major industry and a major problem, and it’s a big part of why I want to spend my time on it,” Straubel said on TechCrunch’s virtual stage Wednesday at TC Sessions: Mobility. “I want to do something that can actually make a really material impact on sustainability in the world. And you need scale to do that. So I am very excited to keep growing this and to be one of, if not the major battery recycling company in the world. And eventually, one of the large battery materials companies in the world.”

The Carson City, Nevada-based company, which Straubel runs, is aiming to create a circular supply chain. The company has a business-to-business strategy, recycling the scrap from battery cell production as well as consumer electronics like cell phone batteries, laptop computers, power tools, power banks, scooters and electric bicycles. Redwood collects the scrap from consumer electronics companies and battery cell manufacturers like Panasonic. It then processes these discarded goods, extracting materials like cobalt, nickel and lithium that are typically mined, and then supplies those back to Panasonic and other customers. Redwood Materials has a number of customers, and has only publicly disclosed that it is working with Panasonic and Amazon.

redwood materials

Image Credits: Redwood Materials

While Redwood Materials is a B2B company, its business model could someday evolve. Interest has been so high that Straubel is now contemplating whether it should also expand into a more consumer-facing business as well. Redwood may never offer collection sites where consumers can drop off old smartphones and other consumer electronics. However, the number of inquiries from local government officials, as well as consumers looking for options to recycle electronics, including the batteries in EVs, has prompted Straubel to at least consider the possibility.

What is known is that Straubel sees numerous facilities — perhaps dozens — getting set up regionally, and in some cases co-located with factories if the customer is large enough. The company hasn’t disclosed where those future facilities will be located.

The company has two recycling and processing facilities in Carson City. And while that hardly qualifies it as one of the world’s largest battery recycling companies, Redwood is already operating at the “gigawatt scale.”

“We’ve been able to grow extremely quickly and to ramp up our capacity and I expect that will follow roughly the scale of lithium-ion production, lagging by a few years,” he said.

To put Straubel’s words into context, consider the Gigafactory that Panasonic operates with Tesla in Sparks, Nevada. Today, the factory has the capacity to produce 35 gigawatt hours of lithium-ion battery cells annually. If Straubel hit the scale he’s shooting for, Redwood would be supplying Panasonic with enough materials to match that production capacity. Reaching that goal would fundamentally change Panasonic’s supply chain away from minerals that had been mined and toward those recycled by Redwood. Those recycled materials would come from Panasonic’s production scrap as well as other sources of consumer electronics.

Celina Mikolajczak, vice president of battery technology at Panasonic Energy of North America, said it would be foolish for the company to ignore the recycling supply.

“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.”