Tesla Co-Founder JB Straubel on Fixing the Battery Problem

JB Straubel, a Nevada resident, has been covering a hillside in solar panels for the last two years and wiring them up to his Carson City home, Nev.-based cryptocurrency project. Much of the equipment is essentially junk—the panels were all but worthless when the 46-year-old Tesla co-founder got them from a Texas solar plant, after a hailstorm voided their warranties. He’ll work on them alone for a whole weekend, spooling wire and rigging hardware in the rolling scrubland. Sometimes he thinks through his company’s latest engineering obstacles while he works. Other times he daydreams how best to divert cascades of photons from the sky, convert them, and suddenly there’s sunlight singing through the electrical grid, charging up cars, spinning a complete, beautiful system around and around: unlimited energy, for everyone, forever.

“What are you doing?” an employee said to Straubel once, arriving at the house to find him hauling solar panels outside. “You need to be getting ready for an interview right now.”

Straubel’s day job has attracted a lot of attention: he’s trying to head off a looming shortage of materials that the world needs to transition away from fossil fuels. Redwood Materials saw $775m in institutional investment last year. The U.S. Senate called Straubel on April 8 to provide expert testimony about the need for resources for the energy transition. He doesn’t much like the spotlight, though. “The engineering challenges are the fun part,” Straubel says in an interview. “This is more difficult.”

Massive quantities of batteries are needed to support a global energy transition as well as avert catastrophes like climate change. They will require more cobalt, lithium, and other metals than has been mined in human history. U.S. companies have started planning huge new battery factories, but Straubel thinks we won’t have enough materials to supply them, not to mention that nearly all the world’s facilities to process those materials are in Asia, meaning they will have travel 10,000 miles before we can use them. Redwood Materials has built a huge facility in Reno to process recycled batteries and new minerals. The scrap will be used as a raw material for the production of copper foil, powdery and mineral-rich active materials that can make about 1 million electric vehicles per year. To completely transition the U.S. to electric vehicles, we’ll need about 10 facilities of that size, with mining operations on an unheard-of scale to supply them. Straubel states that once old batteries are retired, Straubel’s facilities will transition to pure recycling. This creates a clean, closed system where we can reuse minerals from one generation of battery after the other, for ever.

The last part might sound like techno-optimist hyperbabble—but it doesn’t feel that way coming from Straubel. For one thing, he’s not blithely optimistic about the current climate situation (“It’s probably going to be a lot worse than most people expect,” he says). Another reason is that his conversation lacks the corporatist shine. He has an anxious energy and almost winces when talking about himself. But when you ask him about an engineering system or a business plan, he’ll seize the question with almost adolescent animation, dive like a marlin, and then resurface after a while with an apologetic smile, asking, with a bit of concern, “Does that make sense?”

Straubel leans inHis staff pulled out a bright red 1985 Porsche from the Carson City Airport Hangar. “Man, this is in bad shape,” he says, looking under the hood. “It makes me feel old.” As a Stanford University student in the 1990s, Straubel bought the car for $800. He took the engine apart and brought it back to Stanford University. He had made this old junker an electric supercar long before 2008’s first Tesla Roadsters were even released. It’s maximum speed is 110 m.p.h.

Straubel is a tireless worker who has never stopped working on a project. When Straubel was young, he used Legos a lot in Green Bay (Wis.) during 1970s. Sixth grade he made a mini hovercraft and eighth grade he rebuilt an antique electric golf car. He built a mini blast furnace in high school to melt metal scrap from a ponykeg, leaf blower and an acetylene torch. Once, while trying to break down hydrogen peroxide into water and oxygen, he set off an explosion in his parents’ basement. Carol Straubel (his mother) was working outside at the time. “I knew it was JB,” she says. “I went running in the house about the same time he came running up the stairs with blood streaming down his face.” Straubel still has a faint scar on his left cheek from the accident.

Straubel became a darling in Stanford’s engineering department—“one of the most amazing students to cross my path in the past decade,” a professor wrote, endorsing Straubel’s plan to pursue a self-designed major in energy systems. After racing with his student team, Straubel started the electric-Porsche Project. The rebuilt car had incredible performance—electric motors are able to transfer torque to the wheels of a car much more efficiently than combustion engines—but with its heavy, low-yield lead-acid batteries, it was barely able to make it 30 miles on a charge. Straubel moved between jobs after college and began to consider a solution. New, lighter lithium-ion cell technology could be used to build an electric car capable of traveling hundreds of miles.

In the 2000s Straubel, Marc Tarpenning and Ian Wright founded Tesla Motors. The company was geared to selling electric sports cars. They soon hit a wall: lithium-ion cells—approximately the size and shape of AA batteries—could explode if they got too hot, and Straubel’s team was packing thousands of them together. The entire pack of batteries could explode if one defective cell gets too hot. Straubel’s team worked for months to devise a way to cool excess heat without causing disaster. Then, following a series of lengthy meetings in 2007, Straubel managed to convince engineers from Japanese electronics giant Sanyo that the tiny startup had developed a way to produce lithium-ion battery-powered cars that wouldn’t be rolling chemical bombs.

Eberhard left Tesla under acrimonious circumstances in 2007, and Tarpenning exited soon after, leaving Musk and Straubel as the only remaining co-founders when Tesla’s Roadster launched in 2008 (Wright had left in 2004). Next came the Model S, which was launched in 2012. The white-knuckle production ramp up to mass-produce the Model 3 between 2017 and 2019, was a feat that helped Tesla reach the top of the automotive industry and made it clear to the boards of all carmakers that internal combustion vehicles were in danger of being withdrawn. Musk was the public face of the company, while behind the scenes Straubel developed some of Tesla’s most crucial projects, like its charging network and first battery plant. “He didn’t compete with Elon for attention,” says Gene Berdichevsky, an early Tesla employee. “He doesn’t care for it. As long as he got to achieve the mission, he was willing to let a lot of things go.”

An illustrative example of the dynamic between the financier-CEO and his top engineer came at a 2014 meeting of Tesla executives at the company’s Fremont, Calif., auto plant. For about five years, Straubel and his team had been developing batteries meant to store renewable electricity and release it onto the grid when the sun wasn’t out or the wind wasn’t blowing, and an executive at the meeting asked Musk about the project. Apparently Musk hadn’t heard of it: “What are you talking about?” he said to about 50 members of Tesla’s top leadership, according to Mateo Jaramillo, former head of Tesla’s energy division. The executive who raised the issue then pointed out a window, toward a set of prototype batteries installed in the factory’s parking lot. Musk looked out the window, then turned to address the room: “Let me be very clear: absolutely no one should be working on that right now.”

Straubel pressed ahead with the grid battery project anyway, providing “cover” for his subordinates to keep working on it, according to Jaramillo. According to Jaramillo, a former employee of Tesla, speaking under anonymity due to his continued work in the field, Musk didn’t know much about Tesla Energy until staff briefed them. Then, at the launch, Musk strode onto a stage and billed Tesla Energy as the “missing piece” of the global energy transition. Musk did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Straubel says Musk supported Tesla Energy and was involved before the reveal, though it “certainly wasn’t his focus” earlier on. Straubel doesn’t remember the Fremont incident, but he says similar situations occurred from time to time, with Musk attempting to pull resources from projects Straubel supported, like Tesla’s Supercharger network, to address concerns he considered more urgent. “It’s always my approach to try and somewhat calm things down, and say, ‘OK, great, we’re stopping, we understand,’” Straubel says. Later he would talk to Musk and “more calmly” explain the reasons to keep the program going.

Straubel won’t go into detail on how the things went between Musk and him. “Some of this stuff is a lightning rod of controversy that I just do not want to wade into, frankly—I’m tiptoeing around how we even talk about this stuff,” Straubel says. “I know people are fascinated by [my relationship with Elon], but there’s no real benefit in trying to thread the needle on this. You’ll risk finding a way to piss him off on something that you say, probably unintentionally, and then have him more frustrated at you, or who knows what.”

Musk’s success has left behind a series of disgruntled partners, silenced critics, and investors who have taken him to court. Straubel’s tenure created no such controversies, and though he was known as a loner, former employees say he showed a great deal of personal warmth, and he tried to insulate employees from stress coming from the top. Musk, the extrovert and a natural leader, was able to make any demands he wanted. “Another term for Elon—I won’t attribute it, it’s not mine—is that Elon is a random-number generator,” says Jaramillo. “You’re like, ‘Well, what did the random-number generator spit out today?’” Musk was also known for his coldness. “Elon just doesn’t like people,” says Kurt Kelty, Tesla’s former director of battery technology, now an executive at Sila Nanotechnologies, a battery firm. Other former colleagues say Straubel would shield employees from Musk’s disfavor by keeping staff members who might slip up out of meetings with him. Many former Tesla workers jumped at the chance to talk about Straubel, as if they’d been waiting all this time for somebody to finally ask about him, instead of Musk. “[JB has] a passion to do better for the planet because it’s the right thing to do … Elon is driven by something else,” says Kelty. “There’s no heart in it. There’s no passion in it. Whereas with JB, there’s this concern for people.”

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Straubel quit Tesla in 2019 Straubel resigned from Tesla in 2019. There may also have been a personal element to the decision: “JB always felt he was able to work with Elon, but I think there became a point in time where he just couldn’t,” his mother says. “I think the relationship fractured.” Straubel says that he was on good terms with Musk when he left Tesla, and that the two still talk often. Redwood, a separate company from Tesla, is Redwood. “He’s exceptionally demanding and can be a very difficult guy to work for,” Straubel says of Musk. “But at the same time I had a ton of respect for him.”

Musk is certainly worthy of respect. Some insiders believe Straubel didn’t get his due because he made it possible for Tesla to do everything he did. “The difference between Tesla and every other car company is the power train; it has been from the very beginning,” says Jaramillo, referring to the batteries, software, and power electronics that underpin the EVs. “That’s the core of the business—and that’s what JB was responsible for.”

Straubel was the first to start thinking. about battery materials when he was building Tesla’s first major battery factory in the mid-2010s. He knew that if he was to bring about the desired transformation, it would prove increasingly challenging to locate the critical components. Not to mention the fact that society’s battery transition would create a lot of waste and no way to properly dispose of old EV batteries. Recycling could solve that problem, and also help fill some of the world’s looming shortage of battery materials. Straubel started Redwood while still employed at Tesla in 2017. He hired a small team of people to help him with this task. Redwood was founded in 2017 by Straubel, who left Tesla to start a new job. In August 2020 funders invested $40m into Redwood. Straubel started to set up a processing facility for used batteries.

There are two steps to recycling batteries: First they have to be sorted according to the minerals they’re made of—nickel-metal hydride, lithium manganese oxide, or lithium iron phosphate, for instance—then separated from their plastic casings and ground down into powder. These pulverized battery must be made into useful materials.

Redwood will be my first stop in the second “hydrometallurgical” step. (The second “hydrometallurgical” step hasn’t yet begun at scale, but Redwood says it will start happening in the coming months.) Workers feed used batteries into the contraption, which squats high above the ground in a warehouse. Straubel invented the device himself and claims it is capable of sorting different types of batteries at a thousand times quicker than any human can. However, he dodges questions regarding the machine’s operation and declines any detail about two-story tall industrial contraptions which pulverize battery before chemical processing. He says he doesn’t want competitors to learn about Redwood’s technology. “We’re in a situation where I’m trying to explain things poorly to you on purpose, which I hate doing,” he says. The U.S. battery industry has seen a tremendous growth in recent years due to the advent and fierce competition of EVs. “There’ll be some blood on the streets when this is over,” says Trent Mell, the CEO of Electra Battery Materials.

Straubel informs me that Redwood gets too much attention and is not ready for prime time during our short tour. “I’m really not a media person; I’d much rather be in the engineering and the data,” he says as we remove our safety vests and goggles afterward. “I get more antsy as the day goes on.” He looks at his communications rep Alexis Georgeson, who’d chaperoned us the whole day, and seems to become aware that mentioning his discomfort had been some kind of slip: “I can see Alexis cringing.” Straubel’s wife Boryana used to help balance out some of his introversion. A Bulgarian immigrant who arrived in the U.S. in 2005, she worked in Tesla’s HR department, where she met JB. Their union was finalized in 2014. They had twins. “She was the really outgoing one,” Kelty says. “You wouldn’t normally laugh much with JB, but when Boryana was around it’s a lot of laughter.”

Boryana was biking north from Carson City, June 20, 2021, when a car crossed a double-yellow line and struck her. She died at the scene, and Straubel’s life entered the realm of the unimaginable. “I feel like a third party looking in sometimes,” he says. “We go about our lives with a framework of things we think can and can’t happen. This reminds me of the importance of taking care of ourselves and our environment. We think of the framework we live in as so stable, and it’s not. We just think it’s stable so we don’t freak out on a daily basis.”

Boryana was the founder of a sustainable nonprofit that she and Straubel founded. She also started a jewelry company made from recycled metals. After she died, Straubel gave a speech to Redwood’s staff saying that he would redouble his efforts toward the company’s mission of supplying battery materials for the world’s energy transition, because it was what she would have wanted. One month later, the company had closed its $775 million Series C round. Soon after the deal was signed, Ford received battery materials from Ford and its scraps were recycled. The company also secured a contract with Copper Foil, a vital component of a battery, for Panasonic and Tesla. Straubel began building the U.S.’s first battery-materials processing complex on a 175-acre site in the scrubby hills of Sparks, Nev.

The site is crowded with cranes and trucks that juggle their ways through an industrial ballet, moving soil and other building materials across a vast expanse of earth. On a leveled section of earth the size of four or five football fields, pallets of old batteries—from cell phones, EVs, power drills, and every other sort of electronics—stretch into the distance. As though it was a huge cake, bulldozers meticulously cut sections off hillsides. Straubel plans to install an 8-megawatt solar array there, enough to supply a quarter of the -facility’s power.

Straubel seems more at ease as he talks about the company’s higher-level plans, and shows me where various chemical-processing lines will be assembled inside massive, partially completed structures, explaining the environmental value of moving battery materials between these buildings, rather than across an ocean and back. “Six or seven years ago, I was trying desperately to convince people that there would even be enough market to build a giant [battery] cell factory,” Straubel says. “[Building this facility] will be equally obvious in hindsight.”

Redwood gave me the impression that Straubel’s colleagues are somewhat in awe. “I feel very fortunate that I’ve gotten to learn from [Straubel] and work alongside him and in support of him,” says Kevin Kassekert, a longtime Straubel lieutenant from Tesla who now serves as Redwood’s COO. Kassekert, along with others, seem to be protective of Straubel. It’s as though their job was not just to realize Straubel’s vision but to protect him from all the bad things in the world. The majority of public figures can dodge hard questions. Straubel is a master at taking them down. His communications manager actually cried when Boryana came up, and I couldn’t help but feel that those surrounding Straubel actually love him. There’s a sensitivity and guilelessness to him, as if he never quite learned to trade in the world’s economy of small lies, notwithstanding his money and intellect. Straubel’s vision of a well-planned, beautiful future makes it seem like it would be the best decision to make in your life.

He would probably be trying to figure it out even without anyone’s help. He equates wasteful systems with poor engineering to bad music. Good engineering feels like art. That impulse has spread Straubel’s vision across the world, accumulated capital and fellow travelers, and to some extent swept Straubel along with it. He’s surprised about where he’s found himself. But there’s no stopping now, not with so much left to do. “It is surreal,” Straubel says, as workers and heavy equipment carry out his latest civilization-scale project. “This is a lot. But it’s still just scratching the surface of how much there’s going to be.”

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