How about that for a snappy start to this post?
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?
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.
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.
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.”
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?