Are Electric cars really good for the planet?

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    Are Electric cars really good for the planet
    Photo by Charlie Deets on Unsplash

    Last summer, General Motors recalled some 1410 Chevrolet bolts that they had sold worldwide. Since 2017, the Bolt had been America’s first mass marketed and celebrated electric car victory over Tesla. So what was the problem? There were several reports of rare yet critical fires that sparked when the EV was left charging overnight. The cause was lithiumion battery cells inside the car.

    Today, we’re digging deeper into this. We’re also looking at the factor past lithium mine controversy. This is happening right on US soil. So you’ll want to hear about this? Hop in and let’s get going.

    There’s a lot of talk today about electric vehicles, which will help combat climate change and reduce carbon emissions. But one thing people don’t talk about as much is the fact that EV production itself isn’t emissions free. See the irony there? In fact, research shows that electric vehicles effectively contribute to about the same footprint of a conventional gas powered vehicle when you consider how the EV is produced and the energy that goes into making it as produced. After all, the energy has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere can be from a traditional source of energy, like a coal fired power station, for example.

    Specifically, electric cars carry something that impacts the environment negatively, and that is the battery pack. Many people forget to consider how battery packs are made and subsequently processed. Plus, as electric vehicles become even more mainstream, what do you think will happen when batteries get used up and it’s time to replace them? Obviously, the rise of EVs, meaning we’ll see a rise in the need for recycling batteries. Evs don’t use a single battery like your smartphone.

    Instead of a pack that’s made up of thousands of individual lithium ion cells that all work together. When you’re driving an EV, the battery pack undergoes cycles of discharge. When your EV is plugged in, it undergoes cycles of charge. Sounds obvious and straightforward, but the thing is, when you repeat this process over and over and over again, it impacts the amount of charge that the battery can hold. In other words, over time, it decreases the range and the time needed to recharge the battery.

    The current forecast is that the average EV battery can last ten to 20 years before it needs to be replaced. But that’s too wide of a range from me to be very active. So how long does it really last? Well, most EV makers offer a five to eight year warranty on their battery. Conservative industry estimates for battery longevity, and new EV stands at about eight years, or 100.

    0 mile. At first glance, you might think that’s a long life, especially if you compare it to the battery of your smartphone, which can typically last only two years. But the thing is, during those two years, your smartphone might be fully charged and discharged hundreds of times. Each of these charge cycles reduces the battery’s life. For example, after about 500 cycles, your smartphone battery begins to lose a huge part of its capacity compared to when it was brand new.

    And for the most part, that might be okay for a smartphone, because statistically speaking, the average American upgrades to a new phone every two point 75 to three years. That’s why it’s not a big deal, because people expect to get a new phone in a few years, since phones get outdated so quickly. But smartphones and EVs are two completely different things when it comes to cars. Consider this. The average American gets a new car about every twelve years these days, and even then, think of the person who will buy your used car.

    He’ll continue to drive the used car for several more years, and the average car can have three to four owners in its lifetime because the reality is that cars are designed to last hundreds of thousands of miles. Also consider this. The average lifespan of a gasoline engine is about ten years or 200. 0 mile. So in comparison, you can see that the standard EV battery life comes relatively short and isn’t as long as many people think.

    Longevity aside, they say EV batteries need less maintenance than gasoline or diesel engines, so that’s an upside for sure. But when you get to the point of needing to replace the battery, which according to Murphy’s Law, will happen just after the warranty expires, the average cost of a new EV battery is just shy of $6,000. That’s because the battery pack is one of the most expensive parts of an electric car. Compare that to the cost of the internal combustion engine. Most cars in America are four cylinder engines, which can cost between four and $5,000 to replace.

    In the case of General Motors in the Chevrolet Bolt last year, the recall is massive on a global scale. So what did General Motors do? Well, they called Dick Spears. More than a decade ago, Spears had radiated questioned with GM about their plan for EV batteries when they malfunctioned or died. At that time, the question centered around Chevy’s plugin hybrid, the Volt.

    Evidently, at that time GM didn’t have a plan for end of life process of the batteries. So dirt. Spears quickly saw the business opportunities and started handling the logistics of old EV batteries from every major US karmic. Well, everyone except Tesla, of course. And he repairs and refurbishes used EV batteries.

    So what does he do with EV batteries that can’t be fixed? He recycles and then stores them. In fact, his main warehouse has 30ft tall shelves stacked full of batteries. Anyway, General Motors is working with Spears to send them their batteries. In an ideal world, those batteries will eventually be reused and recycled into Infinity and beyond.

    But there are challenges with recycling. It’s not an easy fix. Let’s talk about recycling with the traditional combustion engine car standard lead acid batteries about the size of a toaster. But in a Chevy Bolt, a lithium ion battery pack weighs £960 and runs the full wheelbase of the car, so you can see it’s no joke. Actually, let’s put this in perspective.

    The average EV battery pack in general is so massive that some 40% of its recycling cost is the transportation costs alone. The packs are so huge that they have to be shipped by truck, not by airplane, and they require specially designed cases. The special transportation itself is quite labor and resource intensive, so it can exceed the cost of simply digging up the new materials from the ground and making a new battery pack from scratch instead of recycling. But it’s not just a huge size and weight that makes a challenge when it comes to combustion engine cars. Some 95% of lead-acid batteries get recycled, which is incredibly high.

    And part of the reason is because they’re relatively easy to dismantle. But when it comes to the electric car, each EV battery pack consists of dozens of components and hundreds of cells that are rather delicate, and each manufacturer has their own radically different designs. So disassembling an EV battery pack requires a very focused care and handling. Otherwise it can lead to harmful fumes. Also, the voltages are lethal and can even lead to fires.

    So you can see it carries a lot of risk and danger as it is. And then even if you got past that, extracting the valuable minerals from EV battery is an expensive and difficult process. The only material that can be recycled profitably right now is cobalt because it’s a rare mineral. Lithium and nickel are also valuable minerals that can be recycled, but they’re less profitable. But let’s back up talking about lithium battery production.

    Lithium ion battery was invented in the late 19 and 70s. It’s noteworthy for its large energy destiny and the ability to recharge quickly. It’s the world’s least dense metal and is also an integral part of the digital world, including mobile phones, tablets and laptops. With the greatest potential for lithiumion battery use is, of course, in electric vehicles, and it’s predict that 75% of all lithium ions will be used for electric vehicles by 2025. And that’s just a few years away.

    Now, there isn’t a shortage of lithium, but the problem is it’s difficult to process. It also can’t be stored for long periods of time. That’s why it must be produced in smaller batches. All this requires large investments in lithium production infrastructure. So how exactly is lithium mine?

    Well, there’s a couple of ways. It’s either pumped from underground brine reservoirs called salaries, and then extracted through a series of evaporation tanks. The South American country of Chile, for example, has the world’s largest underground reserves. Another method is extracting from spotamine rocks. This method is mostly used in Australia.

    Globally, lithium production is roughly split equally between these two extraction methods. Most of the raw lithium used in the US comes from Latin America and Australia, and most of it’s processed and made into battery cells. In China and other Asian countries, lithium producers are hesitant to plan and invest more in expanding production, even as lithium prices continue to rise. This is because EV makers aren’t willing to share their developmental plans with lithium producers without long term commitments and contracts. Production is limited to individual orders, which is impacting production on a global scale despite the growing demand.

    So when carmakers need lithium, they may not be readily available on demand. And remember, the metal can’t be stored long term. So we’re talking about a real bottleneck here. Last year, the global demand for lithium was about 3200 tons. Most industry experts now expect the number to grow to 1 million tons in a few years by 2025, and even up to 3 million tons by the end of this decade.

    Current lithium battery technology hasn’t changed much fundamentally since the early 19s 70s, and it only requires lithium and a cathode component. But next generation batteries like prelithecation solid state and lithium metal anodes all require lithium and anode components of the battery. Also, solid state requires twice as much lithium as traditional technologies. And of course, the expectation is that future generation batteries will mean longer battery lives and better driving ranges between charges. Have you heard of Factor Pass?

    It’s public land in Humboldt County. It’s the largest lithium deposit in the US and one of the largest in the world. It’s also a proposed open pit lithium mining development project. With any massive endeavor comes a lot of controversy, and there are plenty with this project. First of all, the lithium concentration of the ore is just two tenths of 1%.

    To put that in perspective, you’d have to strip 500 tons of Earth just to produce one ton of lithium at full capacity. This mine will be able to produce more than 600 tons annually. That capacity is equivalent to 25% of the current global demand. So it’s no small production. But what many fail to notice is that if they do this yearly, this means excavating 20 to 30 million tons of land per year.

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