The International Energy Agency predicts that by 2030, 125 million electric vehicles will be owned around the world. In the US, 14 new models of electric trucks and SUVs are expected to launch this year, which automakers say could appeal more to American consumers than the smaller electric vehicles seen elsewhere.
Biden has also pledged to convert the entire federal government’s fleet (around 650,000 vehicles) to electric, and has promised that every US-made bus will be battery-powered by 2030.
But just how green are they?
Electric cars are undoubtedly cleaner than fossil fuel run cars. Although more energy is required to make electric vehicles than gas-powered, you still save more energy in the long run. The deficit is paid off quickly and even, when with no alternative, the electricity used to charge the vehicles is driven by fossil fuels, they are still greener.
However, it is important to address the huge implications for our natural resources not only to produce green technologies like electric cars, but to keep them charged.
Currently, electric cars rely on lithium and cobalt batteries to run, which is undoubtedly better for the environment than carbon, but isn’t entirely clean.
Cobalt is a key ingredient in the lithium-ion batteries that power electric cars, because it enables the energy density required in batteries intended to last for hundreds of miles per charge.
Lithium-ion batteries used in electric cars and other consumer electronics account for about half of all cobalt demand, and the demand for these batteries is projected to more than quadruple over the next decade.
However, the mining of cobalt is fraught with political issues. Sixty percent of cobalt comes from the Dominican Republic of Congo where children as young as seven are mining it. The mining process also causes terrible pollution in local rivers.
In 2019, Australia was responsible for more than half of global lithium supply, with the bulk of the rest supplied by Chile, China and Argentina. Lithium deposits are also located near some of the most sensitive ecosystems in the world – The Amur River, on the border of Russia and China, the Andes Mountains (Chile) and the Salt Flats in Bolivia. Deforestation, water shortages and toxic leaks are unfortunately a devastating consequence of lithium mining. Lithium extraction in salt flats in Bolivia uses millions of liters of water.
Prof. Richard Herrington, Head of Earth Sciences Department, Natural History Museum said, “Society needs to understand that there is a raw material cost of going green and that both new research and investment is urgently needed for us to evaluate new ways to source these. This may include potentially considering sources much closer to where the metals are to be used.”
Research in Australia found that only 2% of the country’s 3,300 tons of lithium-ion waste was recycled. Because lithium cathodes degrade over time, they can’t simply be placed into new batteries. “That’s the problem with recycling any form of battery that has electrochemistry – you don’t know what point it is at in its life,” says Stephen Voller, CEO and founder of ZapGo. “That’s why recycling most mobile phones is not cost effective. You get this sort of soup.”
At present, there are low volumes of electric-vehicle batteries that require recycling. As these volumes increase dramatically, there are questions concerning the economies (and diseconomies) of scale in relation to recycling operations.
One of the biggest challenges is the installation of charging points. We need more, faster, more reliable charge points for people to be persuaded to take the plunge and purchase electric. Cars also need to be charged at smart times of day to avoid unnecessary costs for energy networks (and ultimately the consumers who pay for them).
Alternative mineral resources
We either need to find alternative sources of cobalt and lithium (e.g. the ocean), increase the pace of recycling, or ideally need to shift to batteries that use less, or none at all. Elon Musk’s car firm Tesla will make electric vehicle batteries with cobalt-free cathodes, it announced during its Battery Day event last Fall, but there is no set timeline on this yet.
For short-range cars made and sold in China, Reuters says Tesla will instead use lithium-iron-phosphate batteries, which are much cheaper and don’t have the same environmental problems as those needing cobalt. The disadvantage is that these batteries tend to have a lower energy density, reducing how far a car can drive without needing to charge.
Lithium-iron-phosphate batteries are already widely used by other Chinese firms, including BYD, the world’s biggest electric car manufacturer. If other electric car manufacturers follow internationally, we may be able to reduce our dependency on a dwindling mineral resource.
The USA currently imports most of the lithium it uses, which is costly, both economically and environmentally however, lithium production in Nevada is set to expand this year to tackle this issue, through looking into other resources to extrapolate lithium from things like clay.
Biden also has plans to support domestic production of metals such as lithium, copper, nickel and other materials used to make electric vehicles, solar panels and green technologies, crucial to his $2 trillion climate plan.
Environmentalists are crossing their fingers that improvements such as this will also provide water protection.
In the UK, researchers are using robotics technology developed for nuclear power plants to find ways to safely remove and dismantle potentially explosive lithium-ion cells from electric vehicles.
A number of improvements could make the recycling processes economically more efficient, such as better sorting technologies, a method for separating electrode materials, greater process flexibility, design for recycling, and greater manufacturer standardization of batteries.
Battery swap shops
China, with electric vehicle sales of more than one million a year, is demonstrating how the charging issues can be addressed with battery ‘swap shops’ in which owners can drive into forecourts and swap batteries quickly. NIO, the Shanghai-based car manufacturer, claims a three-minute swap time at these stations.
This also addresses the high cost of EVs currently. By using the swap concept, the battery could be rented, with part of the swap cost being a fee for rental.
It’s the electric vehicles that have taken off in the world of green automotives. However, there is another player in the field – hydrogen. Hydrogen cars are powered by a chemical reaction. Hydrogen enters the fuel cell from a tank and mixes with oxygen to create H2O, which generates electricity that is used to power the motors that drive the wheels.
Hydrogen tanks are refueled in a process that’s pretty much the same as with a gasoline powered car. You could fill your car up just like fossil fuel, but instead of greenhouse gases being emitted, the exhaust would just be pure water vapor. Compared to waiting around for an EV’s battery to recharge, hydrogen appears to be the much more convenient option.
The challenge is that hydrogen is very energy intensive to create as converting the electricity to hydrogen via electrolysis is only 75% efficient. Then the gas has to be compressed, chilled and transported, which loses another 10%. The fuel cell process of converting hydrogen back to electricity is only 60% efficient, after which you have the same 5% loss from driving the vehicle motor as for a BEV. The grand total is a 62% loss in energy – more than three times as much as an electric car.