Are electric cars environmentally deadlier than the diesel? Part II

27-09-2017 | By Paul Whytock

In Part I of this environmentally related look at how lithium battery powered electric vehicles (EVs) could have a substantially negative impact on our planet it became clear the problem with such batteries relates to how the materials they use are mined and the subsequent toxic processing, the way electricity is generated to power them and the end–of–life questions raised about the lack of recycling.

Let’s take a look at the recycling question and why at present over 90% of lithium batteries are dumped in landfill sites. But firstly lets make it clear why landfill dumping is not a great idea.

At present the number of EV vehicles on our roads is very much the minority compared to internal combustion engine powered ones. But what happens when that situation is reversed in 30 to 50 years time? Throwing end of life lithium batteries into the ground will undoubtedly create an extremely hazardous environmental mess.

Carcinogenic Content

In the US these batteries are classified hazardous because of a number of factors and prime amongst these is the lead, cobalt, thallium and silver content especially as now it is thought that both cobalt and thallium are carcinogenic to humans.

So feeding these back into landfill sites could contaminate both soil and water levels. It’s worth remembering that only 1% to 2% of the earth originally mined actually contains these hazardous elements so dumping tons of lithium batteries in landfills creates a huge concentrated area of these toxic elements.

Not surprisingly such action can devastate local communities and in addition to that research has shown elements like cobalt can cause lung, vision, hearing and skin problems.

So why not slash the environmental risks substantially by recycling? Unbelievably, or perhaps not so when you consider the human factor in all this, the decision not to recycle is heavily influenced by cost, not the environmental imperative.

One thing is clear, recycling methods do exist. One process uses liquid nitrogen to freeze lithium-based batteries prior to crushing and extracting the lithium. Another employs a vacuum enclosed mechanical procedure that extracts the cobalt, lithium salts, steel, aluminium and copper for re-use. To extract lithium metal elements an alkaline solution is used to change the lithium into lithium carbonate which can be made into new batteries.

Economically Unviable

So the technology is there to recycle but the economics are not. The plain financial fact is it costs over four times the money to create recycled lithium as it does to create the original version from mining processes.

The problem for companies considering investing in lithium recycling is it is impossible to judge how the demand for lithium will rise relative to how the number of lithium battery powered vehicles on the roads will increase. And returning again to that constant imponderable, the human factor, there is also a geo-political aspect to whether recycling could be a boom or bust investment.

Currently most lithium is mined in countries that can to some extent be considered politically volatile which raises concern about how constant the supply of lithium will be for decades to come. Add to that the fact that if the number of EVs escalates rapidly will the age-old supply-and-demand factor come into play and hype up the price of lithium. Recycling in those situations could become a very profitable adventure for investors.

However what has to be considered is that any high price escalation of lithium directly impacts the original purchase price of an EV. This is unlike oil prices fluctuations that can see-saw the price of petrol but do little to influence the overall purchase price of the vehicle.

Legal Requirement

So for the moment the only thing that will substantially encourage or indeed force the drive towards recycling lithium batteries are laws that will demand lithium battery manufacturers have recycling strategies in place.

So that brings us back to the headline question, “are electric cars environmentally deadlier than the diesel?”

There is of course no clear scientifically proven answer but my opinion is that currently diesels are the environmental rogues, particularly the older ones that spew out large amounts of lung damaging particulates via their exhaust emissions.

But there is a but. Clearly lithium powered EVs are not the environmental angels the sales and marketing people would have us believe; not when 41% of the world’s electricity that powers them is created by environmentally polluting fossil fuels.

Add to that the lithium battery factor with its hazardous materials that are produced by environmentally damaging methods coupled with inadequate recycling and any substantial growth in the use of EVs over the next 20 to 30 years could see EVs inheriting the title of being the planet Earth’s environmental monster.


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.