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Electronic Materials

Apple, Tesla develop recycling technologies

Battery materials are a primary target as the tech giants seek to close the materials loop

by Alex Scott
April 25, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 17


A photo of Apple's Daisy recycling robot.
Credit: Apple
Apple is seeking to improve on its Daisy robot, which recycles up to 200 iPhones per hour.

Apple and Tesla, two of the world’s largest consumers of electronic materials, are separately developing novel recycling technologies so they can recover more material from their old products, including valuable metals from batteries.

Apple has opened an 800 m2 facility in Austin, Texas, named the Material Recovery Lab, dedicated to the development of novel recycling processes. The lab will investigate how robotics and machine learning can improve on traditional recycling methods such as targeted disassembly, sorting, and shredding. Apple’s scientists will collaborate with academia to codevelop technologies.

Apple currently uses its Daisy robot to disassemble 15 different iPhone models at a rate of 200 per hour and up to 1.2 million devices per year. Apple is now taking materials that the robot recovers and feeding them back into its manufacturing processes. Apple is for the first time recovering cobalt from iPhone batteries to make brand-new batteries. The California firm says it has recently quadrupled the number of locations where its US customers can take their old iPhones to be recycled.

Meanwhile, Tesla is developing a unique electric-car-battery recycling system at its Gigafactory 1 battery production plant in Reno, Nevada. The plan is to process manufacturing scrap and end-of-life batteries into raw materials to be reused by the company, Tesla states in a recently published impact report. The Gigafactory currently makes more than 3 million battery cells per day.

Metals that will be recovered and then reprocessed into new batteries include lithium, cobalt, copper, aluminum, and steel. Tesla expects its approach will generate significant economic savings over the long term by reducing purchasing and transport of new materials.

Tesla currently sends old battery packs to third-party recyclers. They include the metals group Umicore, which uses a high-temperature process to recover up to 7,000 metric tons per year of metals, including lithium and cobalt, at its site near Antwerp, Belgium.



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