In 2020, on December 9, I was happy to deliver an online training about “Product lifecycle management: a cradle-to-cradle perspective”, at the invitation of my university colleagues in the project “INTERACT – SCHOOL ON SUSTAINABLE MOBILITY AND AUTOMOTIVE INDUSTRY” (coordinator: prof. Claudia Martis).
That context offered me the opportunity to discuss electric car design from the angle of design for excellence. Electric cars have become increasingly popular in recent years as people look for more environmentally friendly ways to get around. While electric cars can help reduce air pollution and dependence on fossil fuels, there’s a common misconception that they’re completely zero emissions. In reality, electric cars still produce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, although at a much lower rate than gasoline-powered cars.
An important aspect in this respect is to understand this design from a holistic perspective. I would like to share with you a specific aspect in this respect, which is the fact that electric cars are more pollutant than traditional cars even in their production phase, but they compensate (under some circumstances) over the lifecycle. To start my comments I prepared the picture below:
The main source of CO2 emissions from electric cars comes from the production of their batteries. The production process for batteries requires a significant amount of energy, which often comes from fossil fuels. Additionally, the mining and refining of the raw materials used in batteries can also have significant environmental impacts.
Another factor to consider is the source of the electricity used to charge electric cars. If the electricity comes from a power plant that burns coal or natural gas, then the emissions from the power plant are indirectly attributed to the electric car. However, if the electricity comes from renewable sources such as wind or solar power, then the emissions from the electric car are much lower.
Despite these emissions, electric cars are still a more environmentally friendly option than gasoline-powered cars. They produce fewer emissions overall and can be powered by renewable energy sources. As technology continues to improve and more renewable energy sources become available, electric cars will become even more environmentally friendly.
Warnings! It takes 250,000 kg of ore to produce 500 kg of material in an electric battery and 300 barrels of oil to manufacture a single battery. The production of a single battery emits 40 tons of CO2, and rare minerals such as lithium, zinc, and cobalt are needed at a rate 4000% higher than current levels. Hydrogen vehicles were invented as far back as the 1970s but were undermined by oil producers.
While electric vehicles are often seen as a more environmentally friendly alternative to gasoline-powered cars, the production and disposal of their batteries have significant environmental impacts. In addition to the emissions produced during battery production, the disposal of used batteries also poses a challenge for sustainability.
According to a study by the European Federation for Transport and Environment, producing a mid-sized electric car battery emits between 150 and 200 kilograms of CO2, which is roughly equivalent to driving a gasoline-powered car for about 10,000 to 15,000 kilometers. The study also found that the production of batteries accounts for 70-85% of the total environmental impact of electric cars.
Furthermore, the reliance on rare minerals for battery production can also have significant environmental and social impacts. The mining and processing of these minerals often involves the displacement of indigenous communities, and can result in water and air pollution.
While hydrogen vehicles have been around for several decades, their development and adoption have been limited by the influence of the oil industry. However, hydrogen fuel cell technology has the potential to be a more sustainable alternative to electric vehicles, as it produces only water as a byproduct and does not rely on rare minerals for production.
According to a report by the International Energy Agency, the production of electric vehicle batteries requires significant amounts of energy, particularly in the mining and processing of raw materials. For example, the production of lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles consumes between 60 and 120 MJ/kg of battery, which is 5 to 10 times more than the energy required to produce a conventional lead-acid battery.
Furthermore, the extraction and processing of minerals such as lithium, cobalt, and nickel for battery production have been associated with environmental and social issues, particularly in developing countries where many of these minerals are found. For example, lithium mining in the Atacama Desert in Chile has been criticized for depleting local water resources and impacting the livelihoods of indigenous communities.
In addition, there have been concerns about the use of child labor in the mining of cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which produces more than half of the world’s cobalt supply. A 2016 investigation by Amnesty International found that children as young as seven were working in mines, often in dangerous and hazardous conditions.
Let us see some other data:
- The production of a single lithium-ion battery for an electric vehicle requires approximately 25 kilograms (55 pounds) of lithium, 30 kilograms (66 pounds) of nickel, 15 kilograms (33 pounds) of cobalt, and 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of manganese. (Source: International Energy Agency)
- Lithium mining can result in water and soil contamination, as well as habitat destruction. It has also been linked to the displacement of indigenous communities in some regions. (Source: The Guardian)
- Cobalt mining has been associated with human rights abuses, including child labor and unsafe working conditions, particularly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which produces over 60% of the world’s cobalt. (Source: Amnesty International)
- Mining and refining of nickel can result in greenhouse gas emissions, water and soil pollution, and habitat destruction. (Source: International Council on Mining and Metals)
- To meet the growing demand for electric vehicles, the production of lithium-ion batteries is expected to increase more than 10-fold by 2030. This could lead to significant environmental impacts if sustainable practices are not adopted. (Source: World Economic Forum)
The recycling and disposal of electric car batteries can also have negative impacts on the environment. Here are some quantitative data:
- According to the European Union, only about 5% of lithium-ion batteries are currently recycled, with the majority ending up in landfill or being incinerated. This can release toxic chemicals and heavy metals into the environment.
- The process of recycling electric car batteries can also be energy-intensive and emit greenhouse gases. For example, recycling one tonne of lithium-ion batteries can produce around 1.2 tonnes of CO2 emissions.
- A study by the University of Birmingham in the UK found that the production and disposal of electric car batteries could have significant environmental impacts, including increased greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution. The study also found that the disposal of end-of-life electric vehicle batteries could create a significant waste management challenge in the future.
In terms of end-of-life disposal, electric car batteries are classified as hazardous waste and need to be disposed of carefully to avoid potential harm to humans and the environment.
So, why so much interest around electric cars? I will phrase it in a more tactful manner in the following paragraphs, even though the reality may be more complex and not solely driven by environmental concerns.
The transition to electric vehicles is often seen as a way for countries to reduce their carbon emissions and meet their climate change targets. Germany, for example, has set a target to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. Shifting towards electric vehicles can help achieve this goal, as they emit significantly less CO2 than traditional gasoline or diesel vehicles.
In addition to environmental concerns, the transition to electric vehicles can also provide economic opportunities. For example, the production of electric vehicles requires different components and technologies than traditional vehicles, which can create new markets for suppliers and manufacturers. It can also lead to the development of new industries and jobs, particularly in the areas of battery production and electric vehicle infrastructure.
Furthermore, many countries see the transition to electric vehicles as a way to reduce their dependence on foreign oil and increase their energy security. By producing their own electricity from renewable sources such as wind and solar, they can also reduce their dependence on imported fossil fuels and improve their energy independence. So, the shift towards electric vehicles is driven by a combination of environmental, economic, and strategic considerations.
Credits: Stelian Brad