An electric vehicle (EV) will have far fewer emissions over its lifetime than an internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle. However, the materials needed to produce batteries for electric cars cause a number of environmental impacts and are of concern.
In the case of lithium, cobalt and rare earth elements, the world’s top 3 producers control more than three-quarters of global production. This high geographic concentration, long lead times to bring new mineral production on stream, declining resource quality in some areas, and various environmental and social impacts all raise concerns about reliable and sustainable supply of minerals to support the energy transition.
Over the lifetime of the vehicle, the total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with manufacturing, charging and driving an EV are lower than the total GHG emissions associated with a gasoline car. This is because electric cars have zero tailpipe emissions and are usually responsible for significantly less greenhouse gas emissions during operation. Researchers at Argonne National Laboratory estimated emissions for both an ICE-powered car and an EV with an electric range of 300 miles. According to their estimates, while production and end-of-life greenhouse gas emissions for EVs are higher, the overall greenhouse gas emissions of an EV are still lower than car with ICE drive.
Still, there’s no hiding it: even though EVs have lower lifetime emissions than ICE vehicles, EV production has a dark side and conflicting priorities that require attention and research.
An EV needs about 200 kg of minerals such as copper, nickel, cobalt and lithium. This is 6 times more than a car with ICE. In the scenario outlined by the IEA that meets the targets of the Paris Agreement, the share of clean energy technologies in total demand will rise significantly over the next two decades to more than 40% for copper and rare earth elements, 60-70% for nickel and cobalt and almost 90% for lithium .
Metal prospecting is in Battery Valley and elsewhere
The Inflation Reduction Act, the most powerful U.S. climate law ever passed, dedicates nearly $400 billion to clean energy initiatives over the next decade, including tax credits for electric cars. The electric cars that will qualify for the $7,500 credit are manufactured in North America using batteries with minerals dug from the ground in the US or from its trading partners.
The Zero Emissions Transportation Association (ZETA) and Ford Motor Company say supporting mining in the US will help put more electric cars on the road. In written submissions to the Interior Department’s Mining Law Reform Task Force, they called on President Joe Biden to facilitate the development of mining projects on federal lands. It’s part of a bigger picture of seeking more domestic sources of minerals and materials for lithium-ion batteries amid rising tensions between the West and China, which controls supply chains for battery metals.
A new mine in the US can take 7 to 10 years to complete all permits and paperwork before coming online. In Canada and Australia, the process only takes 2 to 3 years, Ford says.
Not all American automakers are waiting. Run Tesla Canada reports excitedly about indications that Tesla will build its next Gigafactory in their country. Recent Tesla sightings at the Nouveau Monde mine continue to fuel speculation over its capacity to supply anode materials to battery manufacturers. Noveau Monde could be of interest to Tesla with its claims to be the largest mining deposit in North America.
— TheTeslaLife (@TheTeslaLife) September 2, 2022
Electric car battery and lithium battery: Energy storage and controversy
A key component in battery production is lithium – a soft, white metal that is excellent at storing energy. The International Energy Agency has predicted that demand will increase more than 40 times by 2040 if the world’s countries meet their Paris Agreement targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Electric vehicles and battery storage have already displaced consumer electronics as the largest consumer of lithium, and it is poised to overtake stainless steel as the largest end user of nickel by 2040.
Lithium is extracted from rocks or brine.
- Understood: The mining of lithium-rich ore called spodumene uses a surface mining process that poses significant risks to the environment from scars on the ground and from the mining processes. For example, mines in Tasmania have been leaking contaminated water for the past 5 years. 79% of recoverable lithium in the US is located within 35 miles of original reserves. Some such mining projects, while providing metals key to addressing the global challenge of transitioning away from fossil fuels, may face strong and growing opposition from Native Americans for threatening sacred areas or traditional ways of life.
- Brine: Brine—seawater, other surface water, groundwater, or hypersaline solutions—is mixed with fresh water and allowed to sit in ponds for up to 18 months. The water eventually evaporates, leaving the minerals behind. More processing is required before the lithium can be extracted. Concentrated brine, which is a by-product of desalination, contains an even higher concentration of valuable minerals than other sources of brine – thus becoming a source for lithium mining.
Several universities, startups, and innovators are engaged in research and development to produce cleaner metal mining. Of particular interest is direct extraction, which involves extracting lithium directly from brine rather than evaporating water and using chemicals to remove impurities. The aim of this technology is to make the process commercially viable.
Final thoughts on battery manufacturing
About 10 million EV battery packs are expected to be shipped worldwide in 2022, with the number expected to rise to 30 million in 2027. California will ban the sale of new ICE-powered cars by 2035, another step in the global market towards to transition. to purely electric transport and the need for batteries for electric cars.
EV battery recycling is often seen as a means of reducing emissions associated with EV production by reducing primary supply requirements. Recycling takes into account both conventional sources and emerging waste streams such as dead batteries from electric vehicles. However, battery recycling is only the proverbial straw in EV production.
Responsible extraction is essential. It involves examining local biodiversity, waterways and local community concerns to see how to reduce damage, said Aimee Boulanger, executive director of the Responsible Mining Initiative. New York Times. These measures can be expensive, which can reduce profits, so most companies comply with the minimum legal requirements.
Progress towards responsible mining is being made, albeit slowly, in Chile and the US. Boulanger says these laws are often not strict enough to really protect the environment, saying, “It doesn’t require a lot of new technology.”
Critics like ZETA and Ford argue that the urgency of the climate crisis means the world doesn’t have time to mine these metals in a careful way. “We might not be living in the climate-stressed world we’re living in right now if we looked at the impacts of oil and gas extraction,” he notes, adding: “We don’t have time to make more messes while we’re trying. to solve this problem.”
Australian National University economic geology professor John Mavrogenes says many mining decisions will soon be about the confluence of profitability and liability. “We have to decide as a country how valuable a place is and whether it’s worth the risk for mining.”
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