BURNT HILLS – “What do I do to have fun?” says Ryan Melsert, a bit perplexed by the question. After a short pause he exhales, and says with a chuckle, “I recycle batteries.”
Yes, Melsert’s life is his work, and his work is his passion.
A 2000 graduate of Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School who grew up in the Goode Street neighborhood of Burnt Hills, Melsert is chief executive officer of American Battery Technology Company. According to the company’s website, it is “working to provide a key source of domestically manufactured critical and strategic battery metals to help meet the near insatiable demand from the electric vehicle, electrical grid storage and consumer electronic industries.”
Melsert seems as if he was born to be where he is, which is at the helm of a major company in the renewable energy systems field. More than a decade old, the company, located just outside Reno, Nevada, was awarded a $57 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy in October to design, build and operate a first-of-its-kind, commercial-scale facility to manufacture lithium-ion batteries. Included in that initiative is the opportunity to explore the possibilities waiting to be realized in the field, and how exactly to reuse the waste created by the whole process.
“Putting together a multiyear project like this takes quite a bit of effort, and we brought on plenty of partners to be our sub-applicants,” said Melsert, who is 40 and single. “You never know if you’re going to win the bid, but we got all our partners on board to help kick this thing off. It’s a real collaboration and it was very exciting when President Biden made the announcement. It’s great to have the support of so many other private companies that are working with us and to have the support of the federal government. We’re targeting April to really get started with this, and it’s going to be a very exciting time.”
Melsert was blessed with a scientific mind and an entrepreneurial spirit. Both his father and grandfather were longtime engineers locally at General Electric, and while he excelled on his way to a bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate in mechanical engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology, he also went on to earn an MBA from the Atlanta school.
“I always wanted to be in the energy systems field and that is still what I’m doing,” said Melsert, who also worked at GE for a couple months during breaks from college. “My family has a long history at GE and my mom even worked there for a while. I had some great people to learn from at Georgia Tech, and then I also had some great science teachers at Burnt Hills. It’s a very good school. It wasn’t too big and it wasn’t too small. A perfect fit.”
ABTC’s grant from the federal government isn’t the first time Melsert has been awarded money to do research. While he was earning his master’s at Georgia Tech, he won a grant for the college’s Strategic Energy Institute, also from the U.S. Department of Energy.
“I was doing quite a bit of research parallel to the actual course studies in hybrid electric power, and as a student I submitted an application just to see how these things worked,” recalled Melsert. “I ended up winning a grant right before I was going to graduate with my master’s, so I ended up staying there and starting my doctorate, and they later encouraged me to stay and get my MBA as well. I was influenced by some very good professors at Georgia Tech.”
Melsert left Georgia to head for Durham, North Carolina, and work for Southern Research as a research and development manager, and after two years there headed west to San Francisco and Reno, where he worked for Elon Musk at Tesla.
“When I first started at the company he announced that he wanted to build his own battery factory, so we built the biggest gigafactory in the world,” Melsert says of his time at Tesla. “The company brought in between 10 and 15 of us to design and build the facility, and we were isolated from the rest of the company. It really felt like a startup, and to be able to grow that property from a patch of dirt to one of the biggest factories in the world was a very exciting time.”
Melsert says his experience working for Musk was a good one.
“We interacted a fair amount and I always had positive experiences,” Melsert said of Musk. “He genuinely wanted to understand how things worked. He told me he didn’t understand chemical engineering as well as he wished he did, and he asked me to start with the fundamentals and explain from first principles up how the chemical engineering system worked. And he was always very engaged. He liked listening to that kind of detail.”
After almost four years working closely with Musk, it was time for Melsert to head out on his own. He co-founded a company called M2 Thermal Solutions in 2019, and that has morphed into his current position at ABTC, where he serves as both chief technology officer and chief executive officer.
“We were really focused on the manufacture of materials and seeing how there really wasn’t a lot of interest or attention being paid to end-of-life materials,” said Melsert. “There were large amounts of scrap and defects being generated. And when we looked throughout North America for companies to receive our waste products and recycle them, the state of the landscape was so poor. There were very few options for companies looking to get rid of their waste economically, responsibly and safely, so I saw an opportunity. With us understanding the fundamentals of how to manufacture these products, it gave us a lot of insight into how to de-manufacture and recover each of the products, and sell them back into the supply chain.”
Melsert, who said he follows politics but “tends to be pretty much in the middle politically,” returns to the Capital Region about twice a year to visit his parents and two siblings (an older brother and a younger sister). He played ice hockey at Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake and was also on the school’s crew team.
“I still play ice hockey occasionally in some very casual pickup games,” he said Melsert. “I’m living in the Reno/Tahoe area and there’s a lot to do here. We had a good ski season and I was up there almost every weekend. There’s a lot of activity in the winter and summer.”
When it’s time to recharge his own personal batteries, Melsert is seldom at a loss to motivate himself and he enjoys sharing his story with others.
“I would say to people, don’t be afraid to challenge constraints,” he said. “A lot of people look at how things are and they think they’re there for a very good reason. Then you find out it’s really just history and tradition. People get stuck in complacency, so you have to challenge that restraint and keep pushing forward. If there’s something you believe in, and you believe you’re right, then go out there and make it happen.”
COMPANY: American Battery Technology Company, Reno, Nevada
TITLE: Chief executive officer and chief technology officer
HOMETOWN: Burnt Hills
EDUCATION: Graduated from Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School; holds bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate in chemical engineering, as well as an MBA, from Georgia Institute of Technology
HOBBIES: Ice hockey, skiing
WORDS TO LIVE BY: “Don’t be afraid to challenge constraints.”
More Outlook 2023: Looking Ahead – Our annual report on Capital Region business
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