Are Electric Cars As Clean As They Seem?

Authored by Zainab Calcuttawala via,

Tesla’s unveiling of its mass market Model 3 sparked a global interest in making electric vehicles the next big thing in automobile manufacturing. But can the category’s green agenda keep up with its metal and recycling needs?

The concept of bunking the traditional engine for a non-gas guzzling counterpart has been here for decades, but creating an ecosystem for battery charging and bringing vehicle costs down was a challenge for decades.

The sheer force of Elon Musk’s vision is building the infrastructure needed to sustain millions of electric cars in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. Most major manufacturers have joined the enthusiasm to ditch old-school engines to construct the international fleet of tomorrow.

But this new step doesn’t solve all of the world’s environmental pollution issues related to transportation. The extraction of rare earth minerals, the disposal of lithium-ion batteries, and the sourcing of the energy that powers charging stations are all issues that plague the future of the green argument for electric vehicles.

As Wired notes in an article from last year, electric vehicles are most efficient when they’re light. That way, they need minimal energy to transport their valuable cargo. In search for a light material to carry and conduct batteries, scientists discovered the power of lithium - a highly conductive metal that adds little burden to the vehicle’s frame.

Discovered in 1817, this key ingredient is mostly extracted from deposits in the United States, Chile, and Australia. The most cost-effective method for lithium processing involves pumping salt-rich waters into special evaporation ponds that eventually produce lithium chloride. Then, a special plant adds sodium carbonate to turn the former lithium chloride into lithium carbonate, a white powder.

The whole process requires power, which more often than not is sourced from fossil fuels, not renewables or nuclear energy. This is similar to the issue electric-car charging stations face when evaluating the efficiency of their establishments in eliminating pollution from the environment. In most parts of the U.S., if the stations source their electricity from the grid, they’re just increasing demand for fossil fuels since coal, oil, and natural gas power the majority of the country anyway. Some states, like California, are obvious exceptions because of their heavy investments in green energy, but for the most part, the pattern holds.

Moreover, lithium batteries need proper facilities in order to be recycled once they reach the end of their lifespan. Tesla’s Gigafactory, which promises to produce the electric car manufacturer’s batteries in an environmentally conscious way, says it will lead a program to recycle the hardware responsibly.

“The challenge that we have with recycling these rare metals is enormous,” author David Abraham, from The Elements of Power, says, “because the products that we have now use metals in such a small quantity that it’s not economic to recycle.”

But larger batteries should make a more convincing argument to start responsive recycling programs. Reusing the metal resources in these devices will lower the emissions and mining of rare minerals from the planet, paving the way for a healthier environmental report for future electric vehicles.

“The more batteries that are out there, in various devices, the more interest there is in figuring out how to recycle them or to recapture rare earth metals [from them],” electric car advocate Chelsea Sexton told Wired.

It truly has become a demand issue. As electric cars become increasingly popular, more services will be needed to deal with their production and disposal, accelerating the development of the vehicle category’s branding as the technology of tomorrow’s green Earth.


DownWithYogaPants jcaz Mon, 11/13/2017 - 11:41 Permalink

The problem here is the electricity industry is a monopoly functionally speaking.  Electricity is very expensive for what you get in energy.  An example of what the electricity industry is up to lately:

  •  my quoted cost per KWhr == 0.05
  • lard on top of that the disty network charges = 0.08 per KWhr

Quite frankly electricity is a really bad energy deal.And according to a city utility manager I talked to in Arcanum Ohio the network play is an end around the high regulation of the industry.  According to him there are only 12 companies in the USA doing most of the distribution and they plan to up the network costs by 100% over the next year.One thing we could do to make industry competitive in the USA again is toss this retarded children's story of Sky is Falling / Chicken Little oops I mean to say Global Warming and work towards making electricity almost free.  Then and only then will you hear this engineer say electric cars are starting to make sense.

In reply to by jcaz

MoreFreedom eforce Mon, 11/13/2017 - 15:00 Permalink

I have to agree.   Free markets choose far more economical solutions, which waste less and lo and behold, create nations with cleaner environments because that's what people want. Besides, now that the $7500 electric vehicle subsidy may be eliminated, per the GOP tax plan (if it gets thru a RINO Congress that doesn't seem to want to live up to all the promises the GOP RINOs made over the past 8 years), we'll see what the real demand is for such vehicles.

In reply to by eforce

FringeImaginigs DownWithYogaPants Mon, 11/13/2017 - 12:29 Permalink

Another retard that never read and couldn't read a scientific journal. Newflash: Global Warming is real.  Now what that has to do with the price or chickens or electricity is another matter.  And "working to make electricity  almost free"  - nice try, but that ain't goin to happen. So back to reality please. Global Warming is real, and electric cars don't do anything to help solve it.  

In reply to by DownWithYogaPants

RAT005 FringeImaginigs Mon, 11/13/2017 - 12:50 Permalink

By global warming do you mean the globe was warmer during one measurement period that followed an earlier measurement?  Or do you mean that the globe has been getting progressively warmer for a long time and will continue to keep getting warmer?  Do you mean that the earthlings are making it warmer and just need to change how they live to reverse global warming?  Do you mean that there was never a warming trend prior to the earthlings current lifestyle?  Do you mean the globe never cooled during the earthlings relatively modern lifestyle?  Regardless of the time period or earthlings lifestyle, are there any correlations to things outside our atmosphere that are influencing our global temperature (it's a great big universe out there, hard to imagine something as delicate as temperature isn't influenced somehow)?The simple truth is no analyses of global temperatures stands up to isolating a rising trend associated with modern lifestyle that can't be debunked with conflicting data from other time periods.  In case you haven't heard, a Grand Solar Minimum kicked off a few years ago, and for the next 20ish years you'll be glad to be as warm as possible in most of the world.  Good luck!

In reply to by FringeImaginigs

City_Of_Champyinz FringeImaginigs Mon, 11/13/2017 - 12:59 Permalink

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This is a little dated, but shows how retarded the electric vehicle industry can be...The Toyota Prius, the flagship car for the environmentally conscious, is the source of some of the worst pollution in North America, and takes more combined energy to produce than a Hummer, says the Recorder. Consider:  The nickel contained in the Prius' battery is mined and smelted at a plant in Ontario that has caused so much environmental damage to the surrounding environment that NASA has used the 'dead zone' around the plant to test moon rovers. Dubbed the Superstack, the factory has spread sulfur dioxide across northern Ontario, becoming every environmentalist's nightmare. Acid rain around the area was so bad it destroyed all the plants and the soil slid down off the hillside, according to Canadian Greenpeace energy-coordinator David Martin. After leaving the plant, the nickel travels to Europe, China, Japan and United States, a hardly environmentally sound round the world trip for a single battery. But that isn't even the worst part, says the Record. According to a study by CNW Marketing, the total combined energy to produce a Prius (consisting of electrical, fuel, transportation, materials and hundreds of other factors over the expected lifetime), is greater than what it takes to produce a Hummer: The Prius costs an average of $3.25 per mile driven over a lifetime of 100,000 miles -- the expected lifespan of the Hybrid. The Hummer, on the other hand, costs a more fiscal $1.95 per mile to put on the road over an expected lifetime of 300,000 miles. That means the Hummer will last three times longer than a Prius and use almost 50 percent less combined energy doing it. Source: Chris Demorro, "Prius Outdoes Hummer in Environmental Damage," The Recorder, March 7, 2007.

In reply to by FringeImaginigs

RAT005 City_Of_Champyinz Mon, 11/13/2017 - 13:55 Permalink

Sad because I am a fan of the Prius because of what it is and isn't.  The Prius (not plug in) recycles energy for ~50mpg into an aggresivley sized small battery that I always imagined had a small "environmental" footprint based on its weight.  The car is never far from a fuel source, does everything a non hybrid in the compact class can do, doesn't add much weight that plays into tire wear and braking.  And this point is often lost on the green crowd.  Once a car gets over 35 mpg, the return on investment to improve mpg leads to a smaller and smaller justifiable investment.For instance, $20,000 car gets 30mpg.  Take your pick there are dozens.Slightly better conventional cars get 35mpg.  That savings with $2.50 gasoline at 3% cost of money for 15yr,15,000 miles life of 225,000, is only worth $2,132.  Each step up in 5 mpg is worth less and less.  Short answer is paying for more than 35-40 mpg doesn't work out well:The table looks great in the editor but crap in the display and I can't delete it.  Here's the justifiable car cost per mpg starting with $20K at 30mpg:30mpg, $20K35mpg, $22,13240mpg, $23,73145mpg, $24,97450mpg, $25,96955mpg, $26,78360mpg, $27,46165mpg, $28,52770mpg, $28,527  mpg Car Cost Miles per year $/gal Interest Rate Car Life Years Lifetime Fuel Cost Investment Amount 30 $20,000 15,000 $2.50 3.00% 15 $18,750 $0 35 $22,132 15,000 $2.50 3.00% 15 $16,071 $2,131.77 40 $23,731 15,000 $2.50 3.00% 15 $14,063 $1,598.83 45 $24,974 15,000 $2.50 3.00% 15 $12,500 $1,243.53 50 $25,969 15,000 $2.50 3.00% 15 $11,250 $994.83 55 $26,783 15,000 $2.50 3.00% 15 $10,227 $813.95 60 $27,461 15,000 $2.50 3.00% 15 $9,375 $678.29 65 $28,035 15,000 $2.50 3.00% 15 $8,654 $573.94 70 $28,527 15,000 $2.50 3.00% 15 $8,036 $491.95

In reply to by City_Of_Champyinz

RAT005 RAT005 Mon, 11/13/2017 - 14:15 Permalink

To clarify, I'm not saying one car is a better investment than the other, it's implied, but what I'm saying is how much is it worth for a manufacturer to improve gas mileage.  For example, if a nice 35 mpg Corolla costs $22K, what should someone be willing to pay for a nice 50mpg Prius?  What is Toyota's budget to improve mpg to that of the Prius technology 50 mpg?  The answer is $25,969 - $22,000 (base price of nice Corolla if this is too high) = $4,000.Good luck designing much improved techonology for $4K per car.  I wonder if even the Prius can really do it.  No way the other technologies can do it!!65mpg listed above should be $28,035

In reply to by RAT005

ebworthen Mon, 11/13/2017 - 11:19 Permalink

No.  Think about the amount of plastic, mercury containing circuitry, the batteries, the energy burned to produce the electricity to charge the thing, and the likely short life span - and electric cars are not "green" - more like brown.

Chauncey Gardener ebworthen Mon, 11/13/2017 - 14:19 Permalink

And, for Tesla ownrs in particular, the smug's new status symbol. Read a scathing commentary on Tesla and Elon Musk by car guy Bob Lutz in a brief interview in a current car mag. He said Musk is like a cult leader and like Socialism, Tesla is not sustainable when the government handouts run dry. If you don't know who Bob Lutz is, do a web search.

In reply to by ebworthen

JohninMK Chauncey Gardener Mon, 11/13/2017 - 14:45 Permalink

Maybe not so much in the US but over here in Europe around 80% of the price of petrol or diesel is Government tax yielding billions. If there is a major move to electric then that revenue strean will crash. As Governments are not inclined to cut spending, bad for votes, where will that money come from?How about those same car users? So, up the tax on electricity which is currently low taxed? More voters use electricity than cars!Ooops, see the problem?Then there are the other problems like the increased cost on the road structure. Battery cars are heavier, increasing road wear. In northern climates many cars have to use winter tyres, many of them with steel studs in them for grip on ice. Studs already wear grooves in the road, imagine what that will be like with heavier cars. Norway is currently leading this particular aspect of the electric car experiment and it is not happy.

In reply to by Chauncey Gardener

Thoresen Mon, 11/13/2017 - 11:20 Permalink

More electric trains. Fewer cars. The energy infrastructure will never be able to sustain private electric cars at present gas/ diesel numbers.

eclectic syncretist Mon, 11/13/2017 - 11:21 Permalink

What a moron! He misses the whole point of "where does the electricity that's used to charge the battery come from?". If it doesn't come directly from the sun or a biological catalyst that uses the suns energy to make hydrogen (like some algae) then it's not eco-friendly, period.

Bastiat eclectic syncretist Mon, 11/13/2017 - 11:55 Permalink

"The whole process requires power, which more often than not is sourced from fossil fuels, not renewables or nuclear energy. This is similar to the issue electric-car charging stations face when evaluating the efficiency of their establishments in eliminating pollution from the environment. In most parts of the U.S., if the stations source their electricity from the grid, they’re just increasing demand for fossil fuels since coal, oil, and natural gas power the majority of the country anyway. Some states, like California, are obvious exceptions because of their heavy investments in green energy, but for the most part, the pattern holds." Read much?

In reply to by eclectic syncretist

Donald J. Trump Mon, 11/13/2017 - 11:24 Permalink

Interesting to note, Lamborghini's latest uses supercapacitors to run the car instead of batteries.  Maybe someone with some expertise in this field shed some light on good/bad.

I Write Code Donald J. Trump Mon, 11/13/2017 - 11:38 Permalink

Supercapacitors are better at dumping charge quickly, but really the difference between current supercapacitors and lithium-ion batteries isn't that great.  I think the batteries still store more energy per cube.  And while batteries can catch fire, the potential failure modes of supercapacitors is closer to explosive.  Also not sure about the comparable lifetimes.  Companies already make larger-size supercapacitors, in truck-battery sizes, rather than the pukey little D-cells that Tesla uses for lithium.Oh, I left out the biggest difference: you can CHARGE a supercapacitor much, much faster. Regenerative braking is pointless when you just have batteries, but the capacitor can take the charge as fast as it comes in.  For a Lambo, maybe that's important.

In reply to by Donald J. Trump

Quivering Lip Mon, 11/13/2017 - 11:24 Permalink

Where again does electricity to run these lithium battery cars come from in the US. About 65% of this electricity generation was from fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, petroleum, and other gases), about 20% was from nuclear energy, and about 15% was from renewable energy sources.Green indeed.Bwahahahhahahhahhahahhahah.