Tesla co-founder JB Straubel has been funded by Amazon for Redwood Materials, a start-up aiming to extract lithium, cobalt and nickel from old smartphones and other electronics for reuse in new electric batteries.
Redwood is one of five companies Amazon is investing in as part of its $2bn Climate Pledge Fund, announced this year.
Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, said in a statement that this first batch of companies were “channelling their entrepreneurial energy into helping Amazon and other companies reach net zero by 2040 and keep the planet safer for future generations”.
Mr Straubel, Tesla’s technology chief from 2003 until last year, founded Redwood in 2017 after seeing that the global shift towards electric vehicles is likely to cause unnecessary environmental damage from a surge in mining.
His vision is a “world where all of the transportation is done by electric vehicles and we have batteries powering a sustainable world”, he told the Financial Times. “And all of those batteries are able to be recycled and remanufactured many, many times, so that we can have a nearly closed loop.”
Redwood has fewer than 100 employees but has already attracted $40m of investment from Capricorn Investment Group, a sustainability-focused venture capital firm, and Breakthrough Energy Ventures, an environmental fund backed by Mr Bezos, Bill Gates and several other billionaires mostly from the world of tech.
“There are a phenomenal amount of cell phones in the world that currently are being discarded as trash or thrown into a landfill,” said Mr Straubel, estimating the number at close to 1bn a year. “It’s a massive, untapped resource . . . If we can recover 98 or 99 per cent of those materials and reuse them, we don’t need very much new material to keep that whole process running.”
When batteries are used repeatedly they eventually die, but Mr Straubel explained that the underlying elements were basically sealed from the environment, which allowed for them to be broken down and repurposed.
“Even though the battery is internally degraded . . . all of the same materials are still in there — all of the same atoms of lithium, nickel and cobalt,” he said. “You can still harness all of those same materials, but they need to be reprocessed . . . and brought back to a state where they could be used again and built into a new battery.”
Mr Straubel declined to say how much Amazon was investing but said there was “potential for partnership on a number of different levels”. This could include helping Amazon build an end-of-life process so consumer electronics sold through Amazon can be reused.
Redwood launched a partnership last year with Panasonic to reclaim the scrap it generates when it makes battery cells at the Tesla gigafactory in Nevada.
Rivian, the electric truck maker Amazon has previously backed, is also part of the new investment round. The other three companies are lesser known. They are Carbon Cure, which uses recycled CO2 in construction materials; Turntide Technologies, maker of a software-driven energy efficient motor being piloted in Amazon’s facilities; and Pachama, a computer vision company that monitors the progress of carbon-offsetting obligations by analysing satellite imagery.
“We can look at these images and, with algorithms, determine whether the carbon sequestration claims are correct or not,” said Diego Saez Gil, chief executive of Pachama.
Mr Saez Gil would not disclose the total amount of Amazon’s funding, other than to say it came as part of a $5m round led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures.
Amazon’s highly publicised efforts to reduce its environmental impact, which included renaming Seattle’s ice hockey arena, have collided with the reality of meeting intense shopping demand in the wake of Covid-19, and Mr Bezos’s longstanding obsession to aggressively drive down delivery times.
In 2019, Amazon’s total carbon footprint increased 15 per cent compared with 2018. At 51.2m metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, Amazon’s emissions last year were akin to 13 coal-burning power plants running for 12 months, according to a comparison tool from the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Amazon has said it will be a net-zero carbon company by 2040, a decade ahead of the goal set by the Paris agreement. That effort involves ordering more than 100,000 delivery vehicles from Rivian, to be rolled out by 2030 at the latest. The first batch of Rivian electric vans will deliver packages starting next year.