How green is electric?

Electric powered vehicles have been with us for a while now, and have been seen as the answer to fossil fuel power. But how planet friendly are electric cars?

I’ve wondered this before and decided to do some research.

Electric cars run on rechargeable lithium batteries. Lithium, the lightest metal on earth, has to be mined and is also used in mobile phones, laptops, power drills, in fact anything that uses rechargeable batteries.

But the biggest use is set to be in vehicles, predicted to be about 60% of new cars by the end of the decade. Add that to mobile phones and laptops, and the demand for lithium could have a devastating effect on the planet.

Much of the supply of lithium comes from South America, on the borders of Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. Once mined, it is stored in northern Chile in lithium fields, which can be different colours, ranging from blue to yellow, depending on the strength of the lithium carbonate.

The problem is that like any kind of extraction from the earth, mining lithium is harmful to the environment. Soil degradation, loss of habitat and biodiversity, and an effect on global warming are the concerns.

There are also things like water shortages and air contamination to take into consideration. Because of the amount of water needed in the extraction process, this causes shortages for the surrounding communities. The evaporation ponds where the lithium is stored use around 21 million litres of water per day, and to produce one ton of lithium uses 2.2 million litres. Bearing in mind an electric car needs around 10-12 kg of lithium, that’s a lot of water.

There are other areas of the world where lithium is found, the USA, Australia and China.

Reserves have been identified in Portugal, where a huge percentage of the population are against the mining of the metal. Despite this, the government have granted permission in several regions for mining to begin. In the Pinhel region, 95% of the residents rejected the plans but it looks like mining will go ahead. Yes, it would create 800 new jobs, but the locals value their environment more than the wealth it will create.

Researchers are working on alternatives to lithium that would have a lower impact on the environment; it’s thought that iron and silicon could be suitable. Scientists are being urged to look into this as a matter of urgency as it’s thought that the resources of lithium could be depleted within a decade or so.

Scientists are currently working on a battery that is made from aluminium and sulphur. As aluminium is the second most plentiful metal available, and cheap, and sulphur is the cheapest non-metal element, the batteries can be made for about a sixth of the cost of lithium. The sulphur used is a by-product of petrol refinement and is therefore available in huge quantities. It will be interesting to see what the environmental implications of these new batteries will be.

The abundancy of iron and silicon (and possibly others) would offer a more sustainable option – but whatever scientists come up with, the manufacturing process needs to be as environmentally friendly as possible, without causing water shortages, loss of habitat, bio-diversity and air contamination.

It’s got to be a balance between what we need and the way that we get it. Science has given us some wonderful things over time and with the technology we have at our disposal - surely we can find ways to do things in the right way. Hopefully enough thought and planning can go into processes before they start, rather than beginning something that ultimately needs rectifying later on.

So the answer to the question - How green is electric? – is not very. Unfortunately, a need is usually driven by the greed of those that can satisfy that need, irrespective of the damage and suffering it can cause, but I applaud the Portuguese in taking a stand against the greed. Let’s hope they win.