The Silent Cost Behind The World’s Electric Vehicle Revolution

Read The Full Article On: Nationalgeographic

The cars themselves may boast zero emissions. But as more hit the market, the scrabble for the coveted materials in their batteries and motors will exert an environmental and ethical toll of its own. What are manufacturers doing about it? 

BY BEN BARRYPUBLISHED 30 NOV 2020, 11:01 GMT, UPDATED 30 NOV 2020, 12:22 GMT

NOT LONG before he retired in 2019, former Mercedes-Benz boss Dieter Zetsche told CARMagazine that electric vehicles can be dirtier than fossil-fuel alternatives if the electricity their charging point feeds off is generated in China – which relies on coal-fired power stations for well over half its electricity.

It’s improbable that Zetsche had an anti-electric vehicle (EV) agenda; even if it was late to the game, like many car manufacturers Mercedes has invested heavily in EVs, launching its all-electric EQC model last year. Zetsche quickly clarified that an EV is around 40 per cent greener than a fossil-fuel equivalent if driven in Germany.

And EVs in general really are cleaner: the International Council On Clean Transportation states that the average EV in Europe produces 50 per cent fewer life-cycle greenhouse gases than a typical car. 

But Zetsche’s comment, and others like it, are becoming more prescient as the UK and other nations march towards an all-electric future – and demand for more than simply the electricity that recharges them grows.  

If questions surrounding energy generation have traditionally been the big black cloud hanging over EVs’ zero-emissions USP, the emphasis is now expanding to include the supply chain and materials on which EV batteries and motors rely. The availability of precious metals and rare earths, environmental damage from mining, working conditions in the supply chain and geo-political risks have all worked their way up the EV agenda.

EVs and plug-in hybrids (vehicles which also include a fossil-fuel engine) are set to account for a much larger percentage of the global vehicle fleet: up from around 4 per cent today (or approximately 6 million) to around 12 per cent by 2025, says JP Morgan. In addition, governments worldwide are increasingly looking to ban fossil-fuel-powered vehicles entirely by 2040. The UK ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars comes into force in 2030.

In around two decades, maybe much less, today’s still-niche alternative could well be the mainstream. It follows that the rapidly increasing market share of electric vehicles will place heightened pressure on the resources essential for their production, and exacerbate existing issues surrounding them.

The tech behind the wheels

Modern electric and hybrid-electric vehicles typically store energy in lithium-ion batteries sandwiched beneath the car, which, in simplistic terms, are like scaled up lap-top or smartphone batteries. Scaled up quite a bit, though: for example the battery in the DS3 Crossback e-Tense, a small French hatchback, weighs 300kg – roughly equivalent to four adults. The more miles the manufacturer wants the vehicle to travel on a single charge and the larger the car, the heavier and larger the battery must be.

Energy from the battery is fed to electric motors when the driver accelerates, often just one motor on the front or rear axle, and sometimes one on each axle for all-wheel drive, though the new Audi e-Tron S employs three in total: two motors to drive the rear axle, one for the front.

Lithium and cobalt are critical materials in lithium-ion batteries. A precious silvery-white metal, lithium is the lightest hard element in the periodic table and a reactive alkali; EVs account for around a quarter of the substance’s global use, according to a report by Deutsche Bank. But demand is predicted to increase five times from today’s levels, to an estimated 1.5 million metric tonnes by 2025, while EVs are likely to account for some 38% of all lithium consumption.

‘We would basically need to absorb the entire world’s lithium-ion production,’ Tesla CEO Elon Musk said in 2016, on increasing Tesla electric vehicle production from 245,000 cars to half-a-million annually.

Lithium is typically found in compound form with other minerals in igneous rock or oceans and salt lakes, and most commonly sourced from hard-rock mines in Australia, sometimes from clay deposits, or from salt flats or briny lakes within the South American ‘Lithium Triangle‘ of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile.

China Daily, a Chinese state newspaper, reported an estimated five million tonnes of lithium oxide had been discovered in the south-western province of Yunnan in 2019, and acknowledged its strategic importance by revealing China had imported 80 per cent of the lithium it used between 2011 and 2015. Securing a domestic supply helps isolate China from future conflicts, trade wars, currency fluctuations and price increases.

Out of the ground

Mining obviously scars the landscape and is relatively costly. Extraction from salt flats is cheaper and involves water being pumped in to the ground to bring mineral-rich brine to the surface, before it’s left to evaporate in ponds, much like salt. The process requires a large amount of water and can cause toxic leaks.

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