By: Megan Hoover; Sea of Change Foundation Intern and Samantha Whitcraft; Sea of Change Foundation’s Executive Director
Electric cars have become increasingly popular over the last ten years, with both environmentalists and industries promoting them as a “greener” alternative to traditional cars that use fossil fuels. In fact, there are pros and cons to every invention, and as such some argue that lithium battery-powered cars may not be a solution to our environmental problems. Electric vehicles are a more recent development than lithium batteries themselves which have been around for much longer. Ten years ago, the market size for lithium batteries for power tools, for example, was $743 million US dollars. That same year, there were only about 50,000 electric vehicles sold with a global market share value of only 00.2%. Therefore, lithium mining for batteries has long since existed before extraction and production started for electric vehicles.
Another consideration regarding electric vehicles and the mining of minerals to create lithium batteries is an overall sustainable energy challenge. If all or most cars were to become reliant on the minerals needed for lithium batteries – lithium, cobalt, and zinc – the increased demand for these would likely be impossible to provide for the worldwide number of motorized vehicles. It takes 100 to 300 barrels of oil to manufacture a lithium battery that has the energy equivalent of 1 barrel of oil with a carbon debt rate ranging from 10 tons to 40 tons of CO2; and 500,000 pounds of materials are needed to make a single 1,000-pound battery. Although, battery recycling is sometimes available, lithium-ion batteries are typically built into the devices that they power making them hard to dismantle which is an important part of an efficient recycling process. Additionally, some recycling rules (specifically for the European Union) could have other negative consequences because electric car companies may be compelled to take them out of service early to meet a collection target even though they could still have useful battery life left. Issues such as these will need to be worked out as lithium batteries for vehicles become more prevalent time.
Although there are some negatives with lithium batteries, they are likely still a greener choice overall. Importantly, electric vehicles produce zero tailpipe emissions for the duration of their use, meaning there are no emissions coming directly out of the car which reduces the amount of pollution in that specific area. Research done by the European Energy Agency found that, including the electricity generated for charging an electric vehicle, the carbon emissions of that vehicle are around 17- 30% lower than driving a traditional gas-powered vehicle. Furthermore, electric vehicle manufacturers are using and improving eco-friendly materials to build lighter, more efficient vehicles allowing for increasingly efficient driving and further reductions in vehicles’ carbon footprints. Yet another study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that regular gas-powered vehicles’ emissions surpass those of electric vehicles well-to-wheel (from mining to driving) emissions in just 6-18 months of operation.
Improving the sustainable production of lithium for everything from cameras to power tools and electric vehicles will be an important step moving forward. As the use of lithium batteries rises with the increasing popularity and availability electric vehicles, more studies and innovations will likely come to fruition including environmental mining protocols, increased battery efficiency/longevity, and improved battery recycling.