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How “Green” Are Electric Cars?

With the rise of the electric car, fossil-fuel alternatives for transportation have become increasingly popular. Electric cars have often been touted as a response to the climate crisis, because they do not run directly on fossil fuels. This seemingly “green” vehicle, however, comes with its own set of environmental detriments. 

The electric car is not a modern development. The first electric vehicle debuted in the United States in the late 19th century. More recently, the production of electric cars by Tesla has sparked international interest in the electrical vehicle industry. As the name suggests, electric cars use electricity to run in place of petroleum. However, according to the United States Energy Information Administration, 63% of electricity in the United States is currently generated by fossil fuels. While 63% is an improvement from a vehicle powered 100% by fossil fuels, it is far from ideal. 

In addition, the manufacturing of an average-sized electric vehicle emits 15% more greenhouse gases than its gas-powered counterpart. In order to not require combustion, electric cars use lithium ion batteries. The inventors of the lithium ion battery earned the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for creating a “lightweight, rechargeable battery…making possible a fossil fuel-free society.” This revolutionary invention is more energy efficient than other types of rechargeable batteries and produces less hazardous waste than non-rechargeable batteries. 

However, the environmental impacts of the lithium mining necessary to manufacture the batteries are quite sinister. The extraction of lithium is a water-intensive process resulting in the mass utilization and pollution of natural water sources. Over 500,000 gallons of water are used for every ton of lithium extracted. Lithium mining by American electric car industries has therefore had a deleterious international impact through water pollution and land exploitation. Chile is the second largest producer of lithium, second to Australia, and has felt the devastating aftermath of extensive lithium mining, both environmentally and socially. In the Salar de Atacama salt flat of Chile, lithium mining activity has consumed 65% of the area’s water. The mass utilization of water has left very few resources for the local community and ecosystems.

Additionally, toxic chemicals such as hydrochloric acid (HCl) are required to process the lithium, which pollute and toxify natural sources of water. HCl is a highly corrosive substance that kills various life forms that rely on these water resources. In Tibet, which is another major producer of lithium, toxic chemical leaks have resulted in an increase of deceased cow and yak carcasses floating downstream in various rivers such as the Liqi River. The toxic water killed the animals and caused the deaths of the aquatic life inhabiting these rivers as well. This intense water pollution has even destroyed the ecosystem of a sacred Buddhist grassland region. Similarly, in Argentina’s Salar de Hombre Muerto, residents claim that lithium mining activity has “contaminated streams used by humans and livestock …. lithium mining is leaving the landscape marred by mountains of discarded salt and canals filled with contaminated water with an unnatural blue hue.” 

A majority of the land occupied by companies for lithium mining is indigenous land. Both the Salar de Atacama in Chile and the Salar de Hombre Muerto in Argentina are regions inhabited by native South American communities. Lithium companies such as the Sociedad Quimica y Minera (SQM) in Chile exploit and disregard sacred indigenous land for profit. According to researchers studying the effects of lithium mining on indigenous communities, “the [lithium] companies really think the indigenous are like stones in the road. If there’s a problem, they kick it aside….some communities already have to have potable water trucked in.” 

Indigenous South American citizens allege that mass water usage by lithium companies has depleted water resources available for drinking, bathing, and growing crops. A lithium battery expert at the University of Chile believes that “lithium mining is invasive, it scars the landscape, it destroys the water table and it pollutes the Earth and the local wells…This isn’t a green solution – it’s not a solution at all.”

An additional environmental threat posed by the lithium battery is its deceptive promise of recyclability. Less than 5% of lithium ion batteries are recycled, as their manufacturers have yet to develop an effective method of extracting the components to reconstruct new batteries. The current method involves a highly energy intensive and polluting process to remove valuable metals that comprise the battery, such as cobalt and nickel. 

In early 2021, SQM signed an eight year contract with a South Korean battery company called LG Energy Solutions, which involves the extraction of over 55,000 metric tons of lithium. This company is the main lithium ion battery supplier for both Tesla and General Motors. Despite setbacks from the coronavirus pandemic, SQM plans to increase lithium production to 180,000 metric tons by 2023. 

The exponential growth of the electric vehicle industry has a direct correlation with the global provocation of ecological disasters. Though electric vehicles certainly reduce carbon emissions and have the potential to reduce them even further, the environmental damage caused by the manufacturing of lithium ion batteries is a major cost that must be considered. There remains plenty of room for growth within this rising industry.

Sources:

 

Ingles, A (2020, August 17). Effects of mining in the Chilean Andes. Retrieved February 16, 2021, from https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/79a970a813f84a7e964f50a5537a4d9c

Institute for Energy Research (2020, November 12). The environmental impact of lithium batteries. Retrieved February 16, 2021, from https://www.instituteforenergyresearch.org/renewable/the-environmental-impact-of-lithium-batteries/#:~:text=The%20lithium%20extraction%20process%20uses,rich%20brine%20to%20the%20surface.&text=Lithium%20extraction%20harms%20the%20soil%20and%20causes%20air%20contamination.

Sherwood, D (2018, August 29). In Chilean desert, global thirst of lithium is fueling a ‘water war.’ Retrieved February 17, 2021, from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-chile-lithium-water/in-chilean-desert-global-thirst-for-lithium-is-fueling-a-water-war-idUSKCN1LE16T 

Matousek, M (2019, November 13). Electric cars may be the future, but they are still critically flawed in a key area. Retrieved February 15, 2021 from https://www.businessinsider.com/building-electric-cars-how-much-pollution-versus-gas-powered-vehicles-2019-11#:~:text=A%202015%20study%20from%20the,similar%20gas%2Dpowered%20vehicle%20would.

U.S. Energy Information Administration (2019). What is U.S. electricity generation by energy source? Retrieved February 20, 2021, from https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=427&t=3#:~:text=In%202019%2C%20about%204%2C127%20billion,facilities%20in%20the%20United%20States.&text=About%2063%25%20of%20this%20electricity,%2C%20petroleum%2C%20and%20other%20gases.

Murray, J (2019, October 19). Is the Nobel Prize-winning lithium-ion battery really having a positive impact on the environment? Retrieved February 26, 2020, from https://www.nsenergybusiness.com/features/lithium-ion-battery-environmental-impact/ 

Frankel, TC (2016, December 19). Tossed aside in the ‘white gold’ rush. Retrieved February 21, 2021, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/business/batteries/tossed-aside-in-the-lithium-rush/

Denyer, S (2016, December 26). Tibetans in anguish as Chinese mines pollute their sacred grasslands. Retrieved February 20, 2021, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/tibetans-in-anguish-as-chinese-mines-pollute-their-sacred-grasslands/2016/12/25/bb6aad06-63bc-11e6-b4d8-33e931b5a26d_story.html

Katwala, A (2018, August 5). The spiralling environmental cost of lithium battery addiction. Retrieved February 17, 2021, from https://www.wired.co.uk/article/lithium-batteries-environment-impact

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Cambero, F (2020, December 22). SQM announces 8-year deal to supply lithium to LG Energy Solutions. Retrieved February 26, 2021 from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-sqm-electric-lithium/sqm-announces-8-year-deal-to-supply-lithium-to-lg-energy-solution-idUSKBN28W1DR

 

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