- January 10, 2023
- Posted by: Tom Hedge
Electric cars have been touted as one of the most environmentally friendly means of transport. But are they really as beneficial as they seem?
The truth is that their impact is complex. Not only does EV battery production cause significant emissions, mining practices deplete communities of their water supplies and harm wildlife. The source of electricity used to charge EV batteries is also an issue.
Read on to discover more about what the problem is and what needs to be done if electric cars are really going to benefit us.
EV Battery Production
The Environmental Impact of Lithium Mining
Electric vehicle batteries are primarily made of lithium-ion, and also contain cobalt, nickel, and manganese.
Mining these minerals takes a huge toll on local ecosystems. Large quantities of freshwater are used in mining, depriving local communities of drinkable water – communities that are already vulnerable to dehydration, such as those living in the Atacama Desert where a great deal of lithium is mined. Droughts in the region are also preventing the water from being replenished as quickly as expected.
During mining, mineral-rich brine is pumped to the surface, from which some of the above minerals are extracted. In the process, toxic elements also come to the surface, polluting local ecosystems and causing dire consequences in terms of biodiversity. Many dead fish and mammals have been found in the region after drinking the contaminated water.
Emissions in the Production Process
Most electric car batteries are manufactured in countries using predominantly non-renewables, including China, Thailand, Poland, and Germany. (77% of the global supply of EV batteries are manufactured in China, which uses coal as its main energy source.)
Manufacturing a 500 kg electric car battery emits 74% more CO2 than producing a traditional car in Germany. The manufacturing process is energy intensive due to the quantity of materials required.
A great deal of energy is used during the extraction processes, especially in hard rock mining – in this case, 15 tonnesof carbon dioxide is emitted for every tonne of lithium mined. More emissions are caused by the synthesis of the materials, which require heating of up to 1,000 degrees Celsius.
Electric vehicles are often assumed to be better for the environment because they produce no emissions. However, given that the batteries require so much electricity to charge, the source of that energy is vital if these cars are going to have positive impacts. In that sense, the success of EVs on reducing emissions depends on the mix of energy sources used in their country of use. Countries such as Norway, which is supplied by hydroelectric power, are worthwhile candidates for the use of EVs.
EV Battery Recycling and Disposal
The minerals in EV batteries are toxic to the environment if not disposed of properly and the process of recycling these batteries is, again, only as green as the country in which it’s done. The processes involved also make a big difference.
Part of the recycling process involves separating the materials, which is an energy-intensive undertaking and is traditionally done using high heat methods. These methods recover around half of the resources and generate a lot of wastewater and other forms of waste. However, there are better methods which are said to recover 95% of the materials in a clean manner.
While the market for EV battery recycling is projected to skyrocket between now and 2030 due to the increased demand for these vehicles, only 5% of EV batteries are currently being recycled. There are simply not enough facilities at the moment, although their prevalence is growing and existing recycling plants are expected to increase their capacity.
How Can the Production Process Improve?
Emissions will reduce if the countries producing batteries – and those in which electric vehicles are in use – increase their use of renewables. However, we cannot sit back and wait for that time to come.
Various attempts to clean up EV battery production are underway. Some parties claim that we don’t have time to extract minerals in an ethical way due to the possible consequences of not meeting zero emissions goals within a given timeframe. However, the consequences of continuing to mine without limitation may be just as bad.
To extract responsibly means investigating the risks to local communities and biodiversity, and determining ways to prevent harm. Searching for other sources is also underway in order to reduce the impact to locations where the majority of lithium is mined.
Research into developing greener manufacturing processes is also ongoing, such as using batteries with different chemical compositions, but it’s still early days. Researchers are also investigating better ways to recycle old battery materials, and plants are starting to use the greener methods mentioned earlier.
It’s futile to get EVs on the road if their manufacturing processes are not green. Currently, the battery production and recycling processes cause significant emissions, as does the use of non-renewables for charging them. This will change over time as more countries adopt more renewables, but how long can we afford to wait?
There’s also the issue of contamination brought about by mining the minerals required for their production. Increased recycling will help but again, recycling processes need to be green. Overall, a lot needs to change if these vehicles are going to bring about their purported benefits.
Inatech is a leading provider of cloud based Commodity and Energy Trading Risk Management software. We also offer a renewable fuel ETRM system. To discover how our solutions can transform your trading operations, contact us today.