Maritime shipping records contained within the Import Genius database document the purchase of “machines and apparatus for electroplating, electrolysis, or electrophoresis“ by JB Straubel’s 2017 startup Redwood Materials on three separate occasions between May 2018 and January 2019. Straubel, whose departure from his role as Tesla’s Chief Technology Officer was made public by Elon Musk during Tesla’s second-quarter earnings call on July 25th, has been a vocal proponent of incorporating recycling into the manufacturing supply chain.
Details about specifically what Redwood Materials intends to recycle and how the company plans to go about it have been sparse, though the company’s website does list fall 2019 internship positions for both a chemical and mechanical engineer, as well as a metallurgist or materials scientist.
The Carson City address to which one of shipments was addressed, however, provides some potential hints as to Redwood Materials’ business plan. Two of the other companies registered to the same address are RE Dixon Inc. and Sierra Solar Systems. RE Dixon Inc’s website proclaims the company to consist of “the world’s leading experts in epitaxial systems” and Sierra Solar Systems specializes in the sale and installation of photovoltaic arrays.
Epitaxy, the process by which a layer of crystal is deposited with precise orientation above a crystal substrate, is critical for the construction of photovoltaic, or solar, cells. During the epitaxy of gallium arsenide, a semiconducting crystal commonly used in high-efficiency photovoltaic cells, nearly 75% of the material is lost and forms highly toxic solids on the reactor walls.
According to a 1998 EPA study, only half of the US’s gallium arsenide waste was recycled, resulting in nearly $36 million of disposed waste yearly. Advancements in recycling capable of increasing the amount of gallium (which is rarer than gold) recovered from epitaxy, as well as other semiconductor components, could be a significant revenue source with positive environmental benefits.
Assuming that Redwood Materials’ shipping address is not a coincidence, the company appears to be well positioned to cooperate with companies on both the material waste and finished consumer product sides of solar recycling.