JB Straubel Has a Fix for the Battery Problem

19 minute read

JB Straubel has spent the past two years covering a hillside with solar panels and rigging them up to cryptocurrency projects in his Carson City, Nev., mansion. 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. Institutional investors last year signed over $775 million for his new venture, Redwood Materials, and in April the U.S. Senate called Straubel to give expert testimony on resources needed 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.”

We need massive quantities of batteries to power a global energy transition and avert cataclysmic climate change. To produce them, we will need to mine more metals like lithium and cobalt than have been extracted in all of 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. To that end, Redwood Materials is building a gargantuan facility outside Reno, which will process new minerals, recycled batteries, and manufacturing scrap into enough copper foil and powdery, mineral-rich cathode active material to build batteries for about 1 million electric cars a year by 2025. 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. But once more old batteries start being retired, Straubel says, his facilities will switch to pure recycling, creating a closed, clean system in which we reuse minerals in one battery generation after another, forever.

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). For another, his conversation lacks corporatist sheen; he has an anxious energy about him, and when he talks about himself, he almost physically winces. 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 over a bright red 1984 Porsche that his staff pulled out of his personal 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. Its engine was shot, and he dragged it back to the university and began ripping it apart. Long before the first 2008 Tesla Roadsters rolled off the line, he had remade this junker into an electric supercar. Its top speed: 110 m.p.h.

Straubel has always had a project going. As a young child in 1970s-era Green Bay, Wis., they mostly involved Legos. In sixth grade, he built a miniature hovercraft, and in eighth grade rebuilt an old electric golf cart. In high school, he made a miniature blast furnace to melt down metal scrap out of a pony keg, a 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 outside doing yard work 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. He began racing solar-powered vehicles with a student group, and started his 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. As Straubel roved between projects and consulting gigs after college, he began thinking about a way to fix the problem: using new, lightweight lithium-ion cells to make an electric car that could travel for hundreds of miles.

Straubel founded Tesla Motors with Martin Eberhard, Marc Tarpenning, Ian Wright, and Elon Musk in the early 2000s, with a plan to sell 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. If a single defective cell overheated, the entire battery pack could go up like a chain of firecrackers. After months of work, Straubel and his team figured out a system to dissipate excess heat and prevent 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). Then came the Model S in 2012, and the white-knuckle ramp-up to produce vast quantities of the mass-market Model 3 from 2017 to 2019, an effort that brought Tesla into the automotive big leagues and crystallized, in the boardrooms of every carmaker, that internal-combustion vehicles were on their way out. 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 aerial view of the construction site of the future Redwood battery recycling facility on April 12, 2022.
The future Redwood battery-materials processing facility, under construction outside Reno, Nev.Spencer Lowell for TIME

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. One former Tesla employee, who spoke under the condition of anonymity because he continues to work in the industry, says Musk barely knew anything about the Tesla energy division until the staff briefed him on it before the official reveal in 2015. 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 return 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 is reluctant to get into too much detail about how things worked between him and Musk. “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. Meanwhile, Musk, the extrovert, would rain down arbitrary-seeming demands. “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 left Tesla in 2019. The ramp-up to produce the Model 3 in massive numbers had been excruciating, and Straubel says he wanted to develop something new, instead of focusing on mass production of a relatively proven technology. 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 is an independent company from Tesla.) “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 certainly demands respect. But some insiders imply that Straubel never got his public due for making possible everything that Tesla accomplished. “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 started thinking about battery materials when he was building Tesla’s first major battery factory in the mid-2010s. He realized that if it sparked the transformational change he hoped for, it would become increasingly difficult to find those crucial components, not to mention that the society-wide battery transition would generate gargantuan quantities of waste, with no good way to dispose of used EV batteries when they got old. Recycling could solve that problem, and also help fill some of the world’s looming shortage of battery materials. Straubel founded Redwood in 2017 while still at Tesla, and hired a small team to quietly work on that challenge. After Straubel left his old job, Redwood began taking investment, and in August 2020, funders poured $40 million into the small company. Meanwhile, Straubel set to work building out a facility to start processing 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. Second, those pulverized batteries have to be turned back into usable materials.

From left: Straubel, far left, with Musk, center, in 2012; unwrapping a motor in 2004 at Tesla’s first industrial facility; in the Mojave Desert observing the first X Prize attempt by SpaceShipOne in 2004Musk: Patrick Tehan—MediaNews Group/Bay Area News/Getty Images; Courtesy (2)

The first step is under way when I visit Redwood in April 2022. (The second “hydrometallurgical” step hasn’t yet begun at scale, but Redwood says it will start happening in the coming months.) Inside a converted warehouse, workers feed old batteries into a contraption that squats above the floor like a gigantic beetle. Straubel conceived of the machine himself, and he says it can sort different kinds of used batteries a thousand times faster than a human being can. But he deflects my questions about how exactly it works, and declines to go into much detail on two-story-tall industrial contraptions that are pulverizing batteries 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. Thanks to the advent of EVs, the battery industry in the U.S. has grown tremendously in recent years, and become fiercely competitive. “There’ll be some blood on the streets when this is over,” says Trent Mell, the CEO of Electra Battery Materials.

On the short tour, Straubel tells me he worries Redwood is getting too much attention before it is ready. “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. They married in 2014 and had twin sons. “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.”

In June 2021, Boryana was cycling north of Carson City when a car veered across a double yellow line and hit 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. It reminds me also of how important it is that we focus on taking care of each other, and also the climate around us, and the 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 ran a sustainability nonprofit she and Straubel had started, and had founded a company that made jewelry 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. A month later, the company closed a $775 million Series C funding round. A deal to supply Ford with battery materials and recycle scrap from its battery factories came soon after, followed by a contract to supply copper foil, an essential battery component, to 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.

When I visit, cranes and trucks trundle through an industrial ballet at the site, heaving soil and building materials around a huge expanse of carved-up dirt. 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. Bulldozers methodically slice off sections of a hillside as if it were a gigantic cake. 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.”

In my time at Redwood, I got the sense that those who work with Straubel are a bit in awe of him. “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 and others also seem somewhat protective of Straubel, as if their jobs were not only to help realize his vision, but also to insulate their boss from the evils of the world. Most public figures know how to dodge a hard question. Straubel takes them like a punch. 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. When Straubel describes his vision for a clean, beautifully engineered future, it starts to feel like the best thing to do with your life would be to drop everything and go help him get it done.

He would probably be trying to figure it out even without anyone’s help. To him, wasteful systems and poor engineering are like 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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Write to Alejandro de la Garza/Reno, Nev. at alejandro.delagarza@time.com