Electricity Guzzler

LiNixMnyCozO2

How about that for a snappy start to this post?

Li4Ti5O12

Any better?

No? I hadn’t a clue what they were either.

They are two crucial components in the batteries that power all hybrid and pure electric cars that are slowly becoming more common sights on our roads. The first is Lithium Nickel Manganese and the second Lithium Titanate.
LiNixMnyCozO2 is an important material in the manufacture of the positive electrode of an electric car’s battery and Li4Ti5O12 a component of the negative electrode. The electrical current flows from negative to positive through highly conductive electrolytic manganese.
Neither electrics nor electronics were ever my strong suit (as I’m sure is blatantly obvious from my hodge podge explanation of how the batteries work which I copied straight from the internet). That said even I can tell that Lithium seems pretty important here. A little research told me that Lithium is the world’s lightest metal, is highly corrosive and unstable and reacts vigourously with water. It is present in most igneous rocks but is mined commercially in salt lakes in China, Chile and Bolivia. We tend not to associate any of these three places with high wages or good health and safety practices and as a result of this Lithium is far cheaper to mine than to recycle. More manganese is mined in China than anywhere else. The mining of Lithium involves the partial draining of these salt lakes reducing local access to water in areas that can ill afford this. The European Commission on Science for Environmental Policy states that “[lithium’s] continued use needs to be monitored, especially as lithium mining’s toxicity and location in places of natural beauty can cause significant environmental, health, and social impacts.” I’m not for a moment suggesting that drilling and fracking for oil (and it’s subsequent combustion) are highly beneficial practices for our environment but does a drowning man really want to be rescued by a sinking boat?

Lithium Ion Pack for electric car
A typical battery pack used to power an electric car

The production of these batteries is a complex business and requires huge energy. Typically more than double the power is needed to make the batteries for an electric car compared to the manufacture of a standard internal combustion engine. Surely future improvements will (initially at least) focus on improving range rather than minimizing energy usage during production. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency it has “the highest potential for environmental impacts” of any type of vehicle production. None of us with a mobile, tablet or any other portable electronic device can afford to feel smug but the Nissan Leaf needs a little more battery power than your fancy new phone with a curved screen. A proliferation of electric cars will surely lead to a proliferation of battery factories. These factories will mostly be located in low cost economies. Who would bet against them being any different from the kind of facilities that produce our smartphones. These are not nice places to work. Tesla’s “Giga factory”, the vast new facility being built to produce batteries for their cars and their “Power Wall” was massively incentivised to be built in Nevada with tax breaks only companies like Apple and Google could dream of. These tax breaks are surely transferring the Co2 emissions and environmental scarring of the unpleasant business of fracking to less developed countries rich in lithium and manganese.

Picture of Green Electric Car
Images such as this propagate the “green myth” of electric cars

As much as double the Co2 is emitted during the manufacture of an electric car compared with a standard petrol burner and as much as 40% of the life cycle Co2 emissions are incurred during the manufacturing process. We all know that the range of these vehicles is gradually increasing (matching a full tank of petrol within 10 years maybe) but many estimates suggest 100000km of driving will necessitate new batteries. A well maintained ICE will easily double that (my current car is approaching 3 times this figure and has never missed a beat). At the end of the vehicle’s life we are then left with messy heavy batteries. Hybrid vehicles (a relatively mature technology) offer us the worst of both worlds (rarely bettering a diesel car’s MPG or Co2 in real world driving) yet are widely lauded.

White Toyota Yaris Hybrid.
Another bloody hybrid – the worst of both worlds

Perhaps the most famous proponent of pure electric vehicles is South African, Elon Musk. The Tesla CEO was recently quoted as saying “The reality is gas prices should be much more expensive then they are because we’re not incorporating the true damage to the environment and the hidden costs of mining oil and transporting it to the U.S. Whenever you have an unpriced externality, you have a bit of a market failure, to the degree that eternality remains unpriced.”

Elon Musk
I know it’s unfair but I can’t help thinking of John DeLorean. (Did anyone else get such generous terms from Margaret Thatcher?)

If we take Elon’s quote and take the word oil and replace it with lithium or manganese we can easily make exactly the same argument against electric cars. There is a subtle difference, sure, the oil is needed to power the car whereas the lithium is only required in the manufacturing but that’s splitting hairs. Yes the days of suck, squeeze, bang and blow are slowly coming to an end but are these dirty electricity guzzlers really the answer?

6 thoughts on “Electricity Guzzler”

  1. Oh bother. Every escape hatch from the climate change disaster is merely trompe l’eoil. The electric car is another one. Thanks for this article – it was mostly new to me.

    Isn’t the ICE actually a really robust concept? Everything else is far worse.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Richard. I was coming at it from the point of view that you get nothing for nothing. Everything has a cost and it seems to me electric cars just change the point of Co2 emissions (and currently maybe even increase these emissions) to the beginning and end of the vehicles life cycle rather than the constant relatively smaller daily emissions from burning oil. You also need to be sure that the electricity you charge your car with is not produced at a coal fired/oil fired power plant-which is often the case.

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      1. The green mantra is to reduce, reuse and recycle. I don´t think we can avoid a disaster if the first part isn´t remembered. The electric car deals inadequately with the supply side of the Co2 problem. The demand side is to reduce the need for transport. I am afraid the scale and comprehensive nature of this is too much for policy makers and the public who expect tinkering around the edges can save us. As I say elsewhere, we need to reengineer our cities before it´s too late. I really do find cars fascinating but with my head in control I recognise they´re, shall we say, problematic.

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  2. The local lithium deposits in Nevada is why dear Elon located his gigafactory there. A few months ago I spent some time googling about the Tesla Gigafactory and the nearby lithium industry’s use of water, the settling lakes – Nevada relies to a great extent on aquifers which is essentially non-replaceable H2O.

    Naturally, everything is pesented as no problem at all. Those Eurocrats are always raising problems where true entrepreneurship is under way, but not in ‘Murica. No Sir. Full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes. Even if you’re using vast amounts of energy and non-replaceable water to produce a green product. Hey, just put solar panels on the roof and it’s all good!

    Of course, we have Toyota and Hyundai making fuel cell cars. The justification is disingenuous at best unless someone can come up with cheap hydrogen, but producing it from natural gas seems about as clueless as putting a battery factory in arid Nevada. Toyota recently said that after all they’re going to work on EVs. Perhaps the penny finally dropped. What is economical in Iceland using geothermal energy to split the methane molecule doesn’t necessarily translate worldwide.

    As an engineer in training in energy conversion systems, we were taught 50 years ago to burn the fuel near where it will be ultimately utilized, i.e. in an engine, other things being more or less equal. Never saw much wrong with that. Now we charge batteries with a pure form of energy transmission (electricity is not energy itself) produced at some power plant or another somewhere else, in which industry I worked for several decades struggling to get to 40% efficiency. Transmitting it wasted energy in heat, and battery chargers also are not waste free. A bit of a darn conundrum to me. It’s a bit like using champagne as a throat gargle and for general household use, using pure electric energy as something to move vehicles.

    Or we can waste energy producing hydrogen from another fuel so as to utilize it as another form of intermediate energy transmission source rather like electricity and sending it to meet oxygen for MAD. When I go through all the math that suits me and not some rabid eco-warrior yelling aloud and possessed of none of the mathematical ability I have, just a feeling at the unjustness of it all, the most economical form of vehicle seems to come out to a mild hybrid; i.e. Toyota Prius and pretenders. Not the plug-in ones, the regular ones. The plug-ins’ batteries are just too heavy to overcome their presence to say nothing of how they degrade all around performance. Just think of the relatively small battery in a Prius as something like a big clock spring that captures energy on braking and downhill runs and releases it as needed, and that’s the overall cheapest way for best vehicle efficiency. The new one seem to be averaging a real 60 mpg Imperial, 50 mpg US, about 4.5l/100 km. On petrol not stinkin’ diesel.

    Mr Herriot argues for a post vehicle world, and I cannot disagree. Using much less energy is the right way to go. I sincerely doubt it will happen. Great disasters are the usual run of things and climate change will do us all in one way or another, since no one really wants to give up anything we already have. And the boors loudly exclaim it’s not happening anyway, so we’ll have to shoot them first when the chips are down!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment Bill. You raised a few issues I hadn’t even known about but I really should have said that the fuel should be burned near where it will be used. I didn’t realize power stations were so inefficient though. Your thoughts on hybrids are interesting as I felt that even the new small capacity turbo petrols were starting to get into 50+mpg territory without the need for any battery assistance. I reluctantly have to agree with yourself and Richard that a sea change in attitudes and actions is the only thing that will truly reduce Co2 emissions. As a car lover this is a difficult admission! As I’ve said elsewhere it reminds me of St Francis’ famous prayer ( a bit rich coming from an atheist I know) ” Lord save me, just not yet”.

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