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Zainab Calcuttawala

Zainab Calcuttawala

Zainab Calcuttawala is an American journalist based in Morocco. She completed her undergraduate coursework at the University of Texas at Austin (Hook’em) and reports on…

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Are Electric Cars As Clean As They Seem?

electric car

Tesla’s unveiling of its mass market Model 3 sparked a global interest in making electric vehicles the next big thing in automobile manufacturing. But can the category’s green agenda keep up with its metal and recycling needs?

The concept of bunking the traditional engine for a non-gas guzzling counterpart has been here for decades, but creating an ecosystem for battery charging and bringing vehicle costs down was a challenge for decades.

The sheer force of Elon Musk’s vision is building the infrastructure needed to sustain millions of electric cars in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. Most major manufacturers have joined the enthusiasm to ditch old-school engines to construct the international fleet of tomorrow.

But this new step doesn’t solve all of the world’s environmental pollution issues related to transportation. The extraction of rare earth minerals, the disposal of lithium-ion batteries, and the sourcing of the energy that powers charging stations are all issues that plague the future of the green argument for electric vehicles.

As Wired notes in an article from last year, electric vehicles are most efficient when they’re light. That way, they need minimal energy to transport their valuable cargo. In search for a light material to carry and conduct batteries, scientists discovered the power of lithium—a highly conductive metal that adds little burden to the vehicle’s frame.

Discovered in 1817, this key ingredient is mostly extracted from deposits in the United States, Chile, and Australia. The most cost-effective method for lithium processing involves pumping salt-rich waters into special evaporation ponds that eventually produce lithium chloride. Then, a special plant adds sodium carbonate to turn the former lithium chloride into lithium carbonate, a white powder. Related: Oil Pulls Back After U.S. Rig Count Sees Significant Increase

The whole process requires power, which more often than not is sourced from fossil fuels, not renewables or nuclear energy. This is similar to the issue electric-car charging stations face when evaluating the efficiency of their establishments in eliminating pollution from the environment. In most parts of the U.S., if the stations source their electricity from the grid, they’re just increasing demand for fossil fuels since coal, oil, and natural gas power the majority of the country anyway. Some states, like California, are obvious exceptions because of their heavy investments in green energy, but for the most part, the pattern holds.

Moreover, lithium batteries need proper facilities in order to be recycled once they reach the end of their lifespan. Tesla’s Gigafactory, which promises to produce the electric car manufacturer’s batteries in an environmentally conscious way, says it will lead a program to recycle the hardware responsibly.

“The challenge that we have with recycling these rare metals is enormous,” author David Abraham, from The Elements of Power, says, “because the products that we have now use metals in such a small quantity that it’s not economic to recycle.”

But larger batteries should make a more convincing argument to start responsive recycling programs. Reusing the metal resources in these devices will lower the emissions and mining of rare minerals from the planet, paving the way for a healthier environmental report for future electric vehicles.

“The more batteries that are out there, in various devices, the more interest there is in figuring out how to recycle them or to recapture rare earth metals [from them],” electric car advocate Chelsea Sexton told Wired.

It truly has become a demand issue. As electric cars become increasingly popular, more services will be needed to deal with their production and disposal, accelerating the development of the vehicle category’s branding as the technology of tomorrow’s green Earth.

By Zainab Calcuttawala for Oilprice.com

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  • Dan on November 12 2017 said:
    There are two thousand more “moving parts” in a combustion engine. These parts are replaced through routine maintenance and service. Parts are shipped from China via containers, and transported on the road to their distribution outlets where they are sold to the customer. There are a lot of maintenance in an ICE. Think about that for a second. 2000 parts vs. 20. That’s the ratio between an ICE and an electric motor. The replaced parts have to be recycled (or end up in landfill). They are all shipped back to China, where they have to be processed. The recycling of old engine parts is not a “clean” process. Smelting is involved. I’m not evening mentioning the oil changes that some backyard mechanics just ditch in the storm water drains.
    So yeah. The end of the combustion engine is absolutely here and governments are forced to invest, change, spend and go into renewables.
    A hundred years from now, kids will learn in history books about the combustion engine, and with amusement and disgust, their teacher will paint a picture of the chaos (wars, air pollution, cancers, noise pollution, waste, etc. ) that this primitive system offered.
    The party is ending for this industry and it couldn’t happen sooner
  • null on November 12 2017 said:
    good thing we have a disinterested party oilprice.com to dis-inform us.

    weight penalty on vehicles is for: rolling resistance, not a big deal, and inertia. For electric cars you get 75% of that back via regen in gas cars that's a big 0%.

    Lithium sourcing problems are grossly overstated. Most of the other metals are being managed as supply chain problems tarnish a brand but good!

    Many point out cobalt, well one bust town in Canada is coming back due to Tesla cobalt contract. The towns name? Cobalt, Ontario.

    Oil extraction is one of the largest environmental problems worldwide. There's a reason fracking is exempt from clean water protections via the Haliburton loophole.
  • snoopyloopy on November 12 2017 said:
    "In most parts of the U.S., if the stations source their electricity from the grid, they’re just increasing demand for fossil fuels since coal, oil, and natural gas power the majority of the country anyway. Some states, like California, are obvious exceptions because of their heavy investments in green energy, but for the most part, the pattern holds."

    In many areas, electricity demand has been flat at best while the utilities have been assuming that there's growth. As such, there's excess capacity. Also, California isn't the only state with green energy investments by a long shot. Places like Iowa are already getting over 30% of their power from wind and they've just barely started deploying solar, which will send that even higher.
  • Mario on November 13 2017 said:
    The argument of the energy used to mine the minerals is ridiculous. Nobody talks about the energy costs of drilling for oil and then extracting the oil and then transporting the oil and then refining the oil and then distributing the fuels.
  • Paul on November 13 2017 said:
    Electric cars are expensive and I see the charging stations set up at country club next to the handicapped parking spaces - got a few years to go.
  • Richard Wicks on November 13 2017 said:
    What is amusing to me, as an electrical engineer who works in this field, is the enormous amount of ignorance of the public.

    You want to evaluate the efficiency of something, it's very simple. If you take away all subsidies, you find the lowest cost energy solution.

    This would mean that the United States not use it's military to steal resources from 3rd world nations in the Middle East by attacking this, this would also mean not using taxation to subsidize any development of electric vehicles or solar installations.

    It is my educated opinion that the energy density of batteries, the loss in transmission, and way electricity is generated produces more pollution and uses more resources at this point, than a simple internal combustion engine - at this point. It would be far better to reduce the weight of vehicles, and to increase safety of roadways. We still have stupidly designed cars, the vast majority of them have less drag being driven backwards, than forwards.
  • Bill on November 14 2017 said:
    "coal, oil, and natural gas power the majority of the country anyway"

    Coal is down to about 30% and oil isn't used to generate electricity anywhere except for islands like Puerto Rico (see where that got them) and Hawaii (most expensive electricity in the USA). It is easy to buy 100% wind electricity in most places. Tesla generates it's own power at the Gigafactory.

    ICE vehicles are vastly inefficient, about 80% of the combustion energy is dumped into the environment as heat. EV's convert about 60% of the electrical energy to motive power, all of which could be sourced from wind+solar. As for the lithium, yet another strawman. EV batteries are valuable even after 10 years, and an easier source of concentrated lithium for recycling than brine evaporation ponds.
  • Brandon on November 14 2017 said:
    I really need to quote Richard who wrote here:

    "It is my educated opinion that the energy density of batteries, the loss in transmission, and way electricity is generated produces more pollution and uses more resources at this point, than a simple internal combustion engine - at this point. It would be far better to reduce the weight of vehicles, and to increase safety of roadways. We still have stupidly designed cars, the vast majority of them have less drag being driven backwards, than forwards."

    Perfect analysis, could not agree more. Thanks.

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