This e-waste entrepreneur knows what it means to crusade – his recycling quest has recently landed him in legal hot water, and he is currently appealing a sentence for distributing Microsoft recovery software he says was intended to enable laptops to be recycled. But what did his Phoenix hybrid recycling car project aim to achieve? We asked him…
RISING Why did you set out to build a record-breaking electric car from trash?
ERIC LUNDGREN ‘It's a fun story to get people to talk about hybrid recycling but also, overall, it was the best demonstration that I could do to show that there's so much value still in this garbage. Charging your phone with your old batteries from your old phone – that’s not really a story interesting to anybody. So I thought, what is the biggest scale that we could do this on? How can we demonstrate what hybrid recycling is capable of?’
RISING So, why target cars in particular?
EL ‘While I was thinking this, I was driving a PR 500 E that got 90 miles to a charge, then I bought a $145,000 Tesla that only goes 235 miles and I'm driving this thing around thinking I have range anxiety – so how can I get two birds with one stone? How can we push the EV industry forward by demonstrating what's possible, while also demonstrating what's possible with our waste? If I can build a car out of 90% garbage that goes over twice as far as the best cars in the world, then that's going to push the EVs forward. Before you read the story, did you know that an electric vehicle could go 748 miles?’
RISING I had no idea. I thought the range limit – I think Tesla said they got 800km from the Model S – plus maybe 10% or something…
EL ‘I thought so too, that makes two of us! Haha. There's been a lot of speculation on what batteries I'd used and not a lot of people actually know but I'll tell you. It's not a single battery pack. It's not a single format. We used 18650s; we used LG Cam cell packs; we used prismatic cells; and we used 2700 cells. We literally built individual packs and ran them in series and parallel, and built the largest battery pack that I think anybody's ever put in any car.’
RISING And it was all pretty much junk to start with?
EL ‘It's from garbage! That's why it's so cheap! For the batteries, for actual car itself, we dragged out of a landfill – it was really the next car that was going to be crushed. I didn't care – I just cared that when I KTEC tested the batteries, that we performed hybrid recycling on them, so that we pulled the good batteries and then we recycled the bad batteries. Even the good batteries came out of devices that were used up to seven, eight, nine years ago. The old battery in your old laptop that didn't even power your laptop anymore, when I opened that up, there was one bad cell and when I took that bad cell out, I could reuse the other cells that worked fine!’
‘748 miles - that’s the range of a Tesla above what we thought we were going to do!’
RISING It must have been incredible just to hit the 1,000km mark, never mind go past it?
EL ‘Yes, you're right. The licence plate says ‘400 PLUS’ – I thought maybe I could match a Tesla and do ten per cent more than a Tesla, so I did ‘400 Plus’ as a dream, even though the car only took 30 days for us to build. When we passed 400 plus, on that same run we hit 500 miles and I went: “Holy shit! We just did 500 miles!” On the walkie-talkie, with the engineering crew, which is following me I'm like, “Did we just hit 500 miles?” and they're like, “Yes, it's going to die soon” and I'm like, “I'm waiting for it.”’
RISING So, you really didn’t think it would go any further?
EL ‘These battery packs drop off real quick on the end. Once you get to the 90 volt range, the batteries are just supposed to die but this car kept going! It went down to 83 volts, which is unheard of. We hit 600 miles and I'm like: “Alright guys, are our calculations right? What's wrong here?” Haha. Then by 700 miles everybody was on overtime. They were all exhausted. 748 miles! That's the range of a Tesla above what we thought we were going to do!’
RISING What do you put the longevity of the battery down to? Do you have an explanation?
EL ‘Yes, two actually. We used the best cells from the hybrid recycling process and I think that the cells we used were actually better than the cells that come out of the manufacturing process to begin with, because they were the best of the best. They were tested in a factory, used in a product then retested by us. It's a mixture of that and then the size of battery packs. We put 142 kilowatt hours battery pack in a car and then we figured out that if you run it in series and parallel in a certain way, you can bottom and top-end them out where you're not risking the health of the battery.’
‘We're using all of these different batteries but we figured out a way to use an old forklift controller and a brand new voltage controller in parallel, so I flip a switch halfway through between high voltage to low voltage and I'm able to basically use more of a battery pack than what anybody ever realises that you can use. That's something that you can automate, that process.’
RISING You started with an eye-catching project to capture people's imaginations and you've ended up with a technological advance, almost by mistake?
EL ‘We didn’t plan on it but yes it happened and it's crazy because we're not car guys, we’re not even engineers. I'm a computer recycler and my buddies, we're all builders and we love DIY, we love hacking things. We're not trying to be better than Tesla. I'm not trying to build cars. I'm just trying to show people what's possible. Now, nobody in the world can say that 300 miles is the max range that a car can do. If I took the weight of all of the bells and whistles in a Tesla and I added that much weight to my car – mathematically, we've already figured this out. All of our data points show that we can build a car today that has all the bells and whistles and goes 580 miles on a charge – and everything that I'm using is old and used and trashed.’
RISING You’ve pioneered hybrid recycling – how does that actually work?
EL ‘We take laptop and phone batteries from devices that are supposed to be absolutely dead. We open them up and inside you'll find 18650Ds or 18650s, which is the individual cells and that same cell you'll find in a power drill and an e-wheelchair and the Tesla Roadster and every portable electronic device in the United States pre-2006. In fact, my Tesla Model S that I'm driving right now uses this cell. We take this cell and we KTEC test them to the tune of about 14 tonnes of cells per month in my facility here in the United States. We also do it at my two facilities in Hong Kong, one facility in China, one facility in Mexico. We KTEC test these units and then repackage the tested working cells and now what I have is a charger to charge your new phone.’
‘For every car that’s garbage in the United States, we can take 97 homes off of the grid’
RISING And the profits from this you use to recycle the broken cells into a commodity?
EL ‘I realised that by doing the hybrid recycling, by making this a real solution, it's very profitable. There's a lot of money in reusing parts and components for their utilitarian value. It's exponentially more profitable than commodity value. We're talking 10x here. I'm doing a lot for Fortune 500 companies around the world, and I'm doing 140 million pounds of e-waste in the United States every year currently and last year it was only 90 million pounds – let’s say I add another 50 million pounds a year, that's nothing in the scheme of things. I am literally one kernel of sand in the ocean right now, so I need some help. That's why I'm doing all this. I want other people out there to start practising hybrid recycling.’
RISING And it’s not just products for the US that you’re producing?
EL ‘We take ED batteries from major car companies in the United States that I recycle and we turn them into solar power arrays for Third World countries to get entire homes off of the grid. For every car that we deem to be garbage in the United States, we can now take 97 homes off of the grid and empower these people to not only create their own light source but also create their own charging port, and from the savings of the kerosene, now they can buy the minutes for their phone – you’ve empowered them with light and communication using what we were going to throw in a landfill. And I'm able to fund all of it. I'm able to take all of the profits from all of the reuse, offset the cost of recycling 100%.’
RISING What are the big problems that we’re going to face with e-waste?
EL ‘Electric vehicles are the future because they're overall a more efficient solution for transportation, hands down. Everybody knows it but the problem is these batteries in these EVs create a very large carbon footprint, and the lifespan of the EV is short in comparison to what these batteries are capable of. If people think the answer is we're going to smelt it for its raw materials, that is the most wasteful, primitive solution. Another area that we're focusing on today is LCDs and OLED screens and any format of visual because those two things are going to stay.’
RISING What are you planning to do next with hybrid recycling?
EL ‘We're taking all of the trash that we get in my facility that recycles 140 million pounds of e-waste a year, and we're building automated systems to recycle the e-waste. We're building a one megawatt hour solar power array made from 100% recycled materials that's going to power all of the processing in the facilities – so the trash is going to power the recycling of the trash – it’s perpetual’
‘I know that it's going to be the first 1,000-mile car in the world – this car, for a fact’
RISING A lot of people think making a difference is just too hard and don't bother trying – does where your original vision has taken you reinforce the decisions you made to actually try to make a difference?
EL ‘I hope that you tell anybody who thinks that way that I'm a complete nobody from nowhere. I grew up picking berries and milking cows on a farm, in a place in America where people are forgotten, where people don't try to break the mould or try to impact the world. They just try to survive. I love that now, after years and years of having the tenacity to continue when people laughed at me and told me hybrid recycling is a joke, and you can't make money doing this and it's a waste of time; to go up against the status quo, the old-school recycling methods and to see every single year, we get three more Fortune 500 companies that start practising hybrid recycling. That's hundreds of millions of pounds of e-waste that are not going into a landfill now and are diverted just because of our little company.
‘If I can do what I've done, then anybody can. I'm not special. I have a lot of tenacity, I don't take no for an answer but I never went to college. I come from a very poor family and now I'm a multimillionaire by doing recycling. I was told that I'd work on a farm for the rest of my life. I'm dyslexic, I can't even fricking read! Now I have 183 employees worldwide in five continents, so I feel like anything's really possible for anybody at this point in time.’
RISING So what’s the next electric car challenge?
EL ‘There's a highway mileage record which means go 18mph on a track – we're going to do that. I don't need to do anything else to the car. We're just going to charge it up, rent a race track and we're going to livestream it – you're the first person to know this by the way – as the car goes around the track for three days, only stopping when the driver has range annoyance, rather than range anxiety. We're going to get 20 volunteers and we're going to drive this thing until it dies – I know for a fact, actually, that it's going to be the first 1,000-mile car in the world, this car, for a fact.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch the record-breaking story of Phoenix unfold through the eyes of the mechanic who helped Eric Lundgren build the 748-mile electric car…