Are electric cars environmentally deadlier than the diesel? Part I

12-09-2017 |   |  By Paul Whytock

A friend of mine recently bought himself a Tesla X and I have to say it’s a great looking vehicle and I had to agree with him that the performance figures are impressive and would certainly wipe the grin off any Porsche Carrera driver’s face. But when it came to hearing his irritatingly smug comments about how green he had become I had to take issue with him.

So are electric vehicles (EVs) environmentally superior to diesel and petrol powered cars? Absolutely not in my view.

What I will say at this point is that when it comes to air pollution then EVs are way cleaner than conventional internal combustion powered vehicles. Although lets not forget here that 41% of the world’s electricity is produced by coal burning power plants and that process emits air pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, and mercury.

Nevertheless, it is overwhelmingly the case that our air quality is seriously jeopardized far more by fossil fuel driven vehicles, particularly older diesel-powered vehicles where filtering of emission-driven dangerous particulates is either sub-standard or non-existent. Fortunately today’s diesel cars classified as Euro 6 make a better job of controlling nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and the already mentioned particulates.

Environmental Nightmare

But where electric vehicles fail dramatically as green machines concerns the lithium batteries they use. In a nutshell these are an environmental nightmare which can only get worse as ever-increasing numbers of EVs hit the streets. For example, imagine the situation where EVs start to out- number the amount of conventional cars in the world Currently there are about two million EVs worldwide which compared to the 1.1billion conventional vehicles is pretty small but reverse those figures and the environmental danger from EVs would be serious.

So what’s the problem with Lithium-ion batteries? In a nutshell the environmental threat relates to how the materials they use are mined and subsequently processed, the way electricity is generated to power them and the end–of–life questions raised about the inability to recycle them. Let’s deal with the mining first. These batteries require lithium (obviously) but also need cobalt, nickel, manganese, copper and aluminum.

A major source of lithium can be found in salt flats and holes are bored into the flats and water pumped into them to bring brine to the surface where it evaporates. The resulting lithium carbonate is then put through a chemical process to extract the lithium. The problem here is that these processes use chemicals that are toxic and leach back into the soil which is harmful to not only the water systems but also the surrounding area. They can also cause air pollution. The result of all this it harms food production and local ecosystems as well as consuming huge amounts of water that is left contaminated.

Not surprisingly lithium mining has wrecked local communities by depriving them of clean water.

So that’s an aspect of the lithium side of mining. What about those other rare metals that EV batteries need?

Toxic Chemicals 

These metals only exist in tiny amounts and so a lot of earth has to be mined to obtain them. The result is it is often found that less than 1% of the earth mined contains the required rare earths that hold the metals. So huge amounts of mined earth are processed with toxic chemicals for very little return and the contaminated earth is just thrown back into the environment

Some mines use energy guzzling rock-crushing machinery as well as coal-fired furnaces for the final baking stages. Those emit carbon dioxide and some scientists believe manufacturing an electric vehicle generates more carbon emissions than building a conventional car, mostly because of its battery.

Studies say it takes as much energy to produce a gallon of petrol as a some EVs consume in 20 miles of driving, So If I’m driving a car that does 40 miles to the gallon does this make me the greener machine? Not necessarily. Here the maths get complicated because when it comes to petrol and diesel powered cars you have to factor in environmental issues such mining the oil which has to be refined and processed to create the fuel. It then has to be transported to its distribution point. All of this influences the answer to how green is your machine.

But one question that only applies to EVs is what about recycling all those material used in lithium batteries? Failure to do this fully means we are just throwing back into the earth via landfill sites toxic materials that created environmental problems to manufacture in the first place. A doubly damaging environmental situation.

And let's not forget the lithium battery used in a Tesla Model S weighs about 1200 pounds or about half a ton and contains 63kg of lithium. So recycling these batteries is a hugely important environmental issue. I’ll take a look at that in Part II of “Are electric cars deadlier than the diesel.”


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By Paul Whytock

Paul Whytock is Technology Correspondent for Electropages. He has reported extensively on the electronics industry in Europe, the United States and the Far East for over thirty years. Prior to entering journalism, he worked as a design engineer with Ford Motor Company at locations in England, Germany, Holland and Belgium.

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