Question: “How does the carbon-neutral output of electric cars compare to the toxic manufacturing of their batteries?” Working Thesis: Although the current state of manufacturing for the batteries needed for electric cars is far from perfect, the overall efficiency of the car makes it cleaner in the long-run. Batteries have been the centre of electric consumerism ever since humans have found the need to harness the energy around them. The first ever battery, invented in 1800 by world-renowned physicist Alessandro Volta, was simply created by stacking zinc and copper plates to create a current.
Sixty years later, French physicist Gaston Planté created the first ever rechargeable Lead Acid Battery. This began a new wave of commercially available batteries, and kickstarted a scientific movement towards our modern batteries. For the following century, battery technology had not changed, only more efficient materials were swapped in and size modifications were introduced. It wasn’t until the 1990s, in the age of consumer technology and efficiency, that the world demanded new batteries, as our electronics were evolving too quickly for our batteries to sustain. In 1991, Sony released the first ever Lithium-Ion Battery available for commercial use. The energy efficiency and charge density of Lithium-Ion Batteries make it the greatest stepping stone since the first rechargeable battery in 1959. Since their creation in 1991, Lithium-Ion batteries continue to evolve.
The great strides taken in recent years haven’t been by changing the chemistry of the batteries, but by changing the minerals used to manufacture them. Lithium-Ion batteries function through a chemical process called electrolysis, where electrons flow through an Anode and Cathode upon charge and discharge. Modern Lithium-Ion batteries use wide a range of minerals. For the anode, Graphite is used for the large majority of batteries, it is advantageous for its large charge capacity and minimal swelling upon charging.
For the cathode, Lithium Oxides are most often used. Depending on the use of the battery, different minerals are used. The strong majority of battery manufacturers, however, use Aluminium, Nickel, Manganese, Cobalt, and of course, Lithium. Battery researchers are currently testing new compounds and minerals, such as Titanium and Sodium. Although these minerals have many other uses, the Manganese, Cobalt and Lithium markets are heavily influenced by battery manufacturing.
With the sudden surge in demand for electric cars and the batteries that come with them, the demand for the minerals have also increased drastically. This increase has lead to a world-wide scramble to locate, mine and sell these minerals on the international market. Sixty percent of the worlds Cobalt, approximately 50 thousand metric tons, is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to a recent investigation by the Washington Post. Due to the minimal government intervention and regulations, foreign corporations as well as local workers have been exploiting the cobalt reserves with no thought about the environment and efficiency. The largest importer of Congolese cobalt is China.
Chinese corporations have set up operations in Congo, paying next to nothing to local workers who risk their lives digging dozens of meters below the cobalt rich ground. On a lucky day, a cobalt miner might make two or three dollars. The exploitation and hazardous working conditions of these workers has caught the eye of the United Nations and the major tech giants. Apple has recently cut business relations with many chinese producers who operate in the Congo, due to humans rights and child labour concerns. As well as many other technology corporations have also voiced their concerns and began investigating the origin of their much needed minerals. Operations set up in developed countries, such as Australia and Canada, require much more energy to mine and extract Cobalt, due to the nature of the geographical location and government regulations. Although these regulations are great for human rights, mining efficiency and minimizing the direct impact on the visual environment, the energy costs of such operations are incredibly high.
For mining operations where the final refined mineral is not found isolated, but instead found compounded with other minerals, the energy costs are approximately doubled. As the compound needs to be broken down into its individual elements. The majority of the world’s lithium extraction occurs very differently than that of Cobalt. About 54% of the world’s Lithium deposits are found in South America, between Chile, Bolivia and Argentina.
However, these deposits are not found in solid rock form, they are found in aqueous solutions. These Lithium brines can vary quite significantly in depth below the surface, starting at a few dozen meters, and can go as deep as a couple thousand meters. The process to extract the lithium starts with the pumping of the Lithium-filled solution to the surface. The solution must rest in the open sun for months, as to evaporate the water. When the solution reaches are certain concentration of lithium, it is pumped to refining plant, where unwanted minerals, such as Magnesium, are removed. It takes many chemical reactions and even more time to finally get the final product of pure Lithium.
Similarly to Cobalt, Lithium has seen a recent increase in demand, which has lead to increase in mining activity around the globe. However due to strong government regulations on mineral extraction and exports, it is currently very difficult for foreign companies and investors to get access to Lithium in South America. The argentinian government, however, has opened new discussions on foreign involvement in domestic operations, which has caught the attention of international mineral corporations. The top Lithium-producing country is Australia.
In 2016, Australia extracted fourteen thousand metric tons of Lithium. However mining operations are very different than in South America. Australia does not have Lithium Brine reserves, instead it is found in solid rock compounds, such as spodumene and petalite. These ores are mined in open mines, which require a lot more energy to extract, approximately double that of brine operations, according to the United States Geographical Survey. However, the process is much quicker than that of Lithium brine extraction. After extracting the rock from the ground, the ore can begin to be refined immediately or shipped to refineries around the world.
About 75% of Australian extracted spodumene is shipped to China, to produce either pure lithium metal or lithium salts. The sudden interest spike and increase in demand for electric cars has aggravated an already very problematic issue. The rapidly rising demand for the minerals needed for these cars has lead to a worldwide race between companies to get to begin extracting these minerals. Many minerals have already been in the centre of the markets for decades and will not feel the impact of the electric car movement, such as Nickel and Aluminium.
However, the Lithium and Cobalt markets with feel the impact as unsustainable extraction operations are set up in regions which cannot efficiently supply the world’s growing demand. That being said, as Lithium-Ion batteries become a permanent commodity in our society, producers are certain to invest in efficient manufacturing practices, and will benefit from economies of scale. As advertised, electric cars have zero carbon emissions.
The car itself produces no greenhouse gases. However, electric cars need electricity to power their engines, and this electricity is usually taken directly from the energy grid. For the purpose of simplifying the comparison between combustion cars and electric cars, the numbers used will be taken from US statistics. In 2016, the US produced 4 trillion kilowatt hours of energy, natural gas being the primary fuel and 15% being renewable energy methods, while releasing 1.8 billion tons of CO2 in the process.
That means that one ton of CO2 is emitted for every 2200 kWh created. A standard electric car, in this case a Tesla Model 3, requires on average 16 kWh to drive 100 kilometers. If those 16 kWh were taken from the energy grid, they would have released 6.6 kilograms of CO2 upon creation. In comparison, the average combustion engine car releases 25.7 kilograms of CO2 per 100 kilometers driven, according the statistics released by EPA.
That means an electric car releases a quarter of the amount of CO2 a combustion car releases, upon energy consumption. These numbers are only to get slimmer, as battery technology and electric engine efficiency continue to improve, as well as the energy grid becomes cleaner as coal and petroleum is being replaced by natural gas and renewable energy sources. Ever since the modern electric car movement began a decade ago, consumers have created a large demand for the new environmentally-friendly alternatives. The movement