So, we’re now breathing in, inhaling plastic.
Dispatches put an air filter in a classroom in a polluted London school, to find out what kind of emissions the children were breathing in. The filter was then taken to the Dyson laboratory for examination. They found that the metalicide rubber, most possibly to have come from car tyres, and they allegedly found bits of brake dust.
This is coming from tyres and brakes, not exhausts. There are no regulations for emissions from brakes or tyres in the United Kingdom.
The modern car tyre is over 50 per cent plastic, so we’re now breathing in, inhaling plastic, which should have us all really worried, and we know how dangerous it is in the ocean, and now it’s going into our lungs. Which means that some of the components from brake wear and the plastics together, these will be irritating and cause a reaction in the lung, which would over time not be great for our well-being.
This is a new finding, so who’s failed here? The car manufacturers, the EU, the government, well, seemingly all of them. When we go to electric cars, there’ll be no tailpipe emissions but we’re going to get plastic emissions from road wear, plastic emissions from tyres, so we need to do more research into the likely health effects of these plastics which we’re seeing for the first time. So, are they telling us that scientists didn’t realise carcinogenic brake dust was in the air?
It’s well known that brake dust is detrimental to your health, with millions of cars on the road braking every day, the dust weighs nothing, so it’s common sense that it’s in the air.
The drive to replace polluting petrol and diesel cars with a new breed of electric vehicles has garnered momentum, but there’s another pending environmental question at the heart of the electric car movement, what on earth do we do with half tonne lithium-ion batteries when they wear out?
British and French governments last month pledged to outlaw the sale of petrol- and diesel-powered cars by 2040, and carmaker Volvo promised to only sell electric or hybrid vehicles from 2019. The number of electric cars in the world passed the 2 million mark last year and the International Energy Agency predicts there will be 140 million electric cars globally by 2030 if countries meet Paris climate agreement targets.
This electric transportation boom could leave 11 million tonnes of spent lithium-ion batteries in need of recycling between now and 2030. However, in the EU, as few as 5 per cent of lithium-ion batteries are recycled.
This has an environmental cost, and not only do the batteries carry a danger of giving off poisonous vapours if damaged, but core ingredients such as lithium and cobalt are finite and extraction can lead to water contamination and depletion amongst other environmental consequences. There are, however, grounds for optimism.
Thus far, the poor standards of lithium-ion battery recycling can be demonstrated by the fact that most are contained within consumer electronics, which usually end up forgotten in a drawer or thrown into a landfill. This won’t happen with electric vehicles because car producers will be responsible for the gathering and recycling of spent lithium-ion batteries, and given their sheer dimension, batteries can’t be stored at home and landfilling is not an alternative.
EU Regulations, which require the producers of batteries to fund the costs of gathering, treating and recovering all collected batteries, are already encouraging tie-ups between carmakers and recyclers. Umicore, which has invested €25m (£22.6m) into an industrial pilot plant in Antwerp to recycle lithium-ion batteries, and has deals in Europe with both Tesla and Toyota to use smelting to recover precious metals such as cobalt and nickel.
Problem resolved? Not exactly.
While commercial smelting methods such as Umicore’s can easily recover many metals, they can’t directly recover the vital lithium, which ends up in a mixed byproduct, and Umicore says it can recover lithium from the byproduct, but each additional process adds expense. This means that while electric vehicle batteries might be taken to recycling plants, there’s no guarantee the lithium itself will be recovered if it doesn’t pay to do so.
Investment bank Morgan Stanley in June said it forecast no recycling of lithium at all over the decade ahead, and that there risked being inadequate recycling infrastructure in place when the current stream of batteries die, and the fundamental dilemma is that while the cost of completely recycling a battery is plunging toward €1 per kilo, the value of the raw materials that can be reclaimed is only a third of that.
Nissan has partnered with power management firm Eaton for its car batteries to be re-used for home energy storage, sooner than be recycled, and this economic problem is a huge reason why the cost of recycling is the barrier because it has to be lower than the value of the recovered materials for this to work.
The lack of recycling capacity is a tragedy. It takes so much energy to remove these materials from the ground, and if we don’t re-use them we could be making our environmental problems worse, and Aceleron, like Nissan, believes the answer lies in re-using rather than recycling car batteries, for which the company has patented a process.
Car batteries can still have up to 70 per cent of their capacity when they cease being good enough to power electric vehicles, making them ideal, when broken down, tested and re-packaged, for uses such as home energy storage.
Fresh from recognition by Forbes as one of the 30 most impressive hi-tech startups in Europe, Aceleron is looking for investors to help it roll out pilot projects because there’s going to be a storm of electric vehicle batteries that will reach the end of their life in a few years, and they’re positioning themselves to be ready for it.
This is not the only option though. Li-Cycle is pioneering a new recycling technology using a chemical method to recover all of the valuable metals from batteries, and Kochhar is looking to create the first industrial plant to put 5,000 tonnes of batteries a year through a wet chemistry process.
Lithium-based medication is used to manage bipolar disorder. We could turn those discarded batteries into billions of tablets for patients of this condition the world over.
There is nothing clean or green about electric cars.
Their CO2 saving is minimal and the pollution from their production is horrendous, and it’s time to bust this thing wide open, and electric cars have higher manufacturing emissions than normal cars.
Electric cars also use electricity that has its own footprint, and put together these two factors are a dirty little secret that cancels any climate benefit of electric cars, and one of the most bothersome things about articles discussing electric car emissions is the way it’s always pretty black and white.
In one corner you have the zero-emissions brigade and in the other the worse than combustion engine crew. But as ever, real life comes in shades of grey. The truth is that even after you account for the bigger manufacturing footprint of an electric car it’s all about the fuel mix of the power you use, the ‘juice’ if you will.
Using coal-powered electricity electric cars does nothing to lower emissions, using natural gas electricity they’re like a top hybrid and using low carbon power they result in less than half the total emissions of the best combustion vehicle, manufacturing included.
Dieselgate has numerous people switching to electric vehicles as a more environmentally friendly option, but in some respects, e-cars can be just as dangerous for the environment as conventional vehicles.
E-cars don’t release climate-damaging greenhouse gases or health-harming nitrogen oxide. They’re quiet and simple to operate, and electric vehicles appear to have a number of benefits over cars that operate on petrol or diesel. Indeed, with revelations about auto industry cheating on emissions tests, numerous consumers feel cheated and are looking for ways to avoid becoming a victim of hypocrisy, and it seems that one way to do so would be to change to electric transportation.
And in many instances, governments are encouraging this transformation because it seems that e-cars are a quick solution to two societal needs. Reaching national targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and tackling air pollution in city centres.
Germany, which has promised to decrease carbon emissions by 40 per cent by 2020 compared to 1994 levels, intends to have 1 million electric cars on the road by then, but it’s not expected that they will attain their goal, and beyond that, electric cars aren’t the ideal solution, for many reasons.
If e-cars are running on electricity generated by burning nasty fossil fuels, climate benefits are restricted because the complex batteries they use, currently takes more energy to produce an electric car than a traditional one, and disposing of those batteries generates an environmental risk.
So, how can consumers be certain they’re making the right decision?
Under existing conditions, the overall carbon footprint of a battery-powered car is similar to that of a conventional car with a combustion engine, regardless of its size, and while fewer emissions are generated by the vehicles themselves while driving on the roads, CO2 is still being released by power plants to charge the electric cars.
In Germany for example, more than half of Germany’s electricity is generated from coal and gas, and a person charging an electric car with what usually comes out of a German power socket would need to drive 100,000 kilometres (62,000 miles) in order to pay off this eco-debt, and generate overall less CO2 than driving a gasoline driven vehicle.
The production of electric carriers currently poses the most significant environmental problem, and according to research by the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics, it takes more than twice the amount of energy to produce an electric car as a conventional one. The main reason for that is the battery.
The institute estimates that each kilowatt hour of battery capacity involves 125 kilograms (276 pounds) of CO2 emissions. For a 22 kilowatt-hour battery for a BMW i3, this translates into approximately 3 tons of CO2, and a study by the IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute discovered that the greenhouse gas burden of current battery production is 150 to 200 kilograms CO2 per kWh.
Battery production with contemporary technology needs 350 to 650 Megajoule of energy per kWh. Batteries further need to be made from minerals such as copper and cobalt, and rare earths like neodymium.
Mining ventures in countries like China or the Democratic Republic of Congo frequently create human rights breaches and widespread ecological destruction: deforestation, contaminated rivers, and contaminated soil.
In addition, numerous automakers use aluminium to build the chassis of e-cars, and a huge volume of power is needed to prepare bauxite ore into the lightweight metal. Yoann Le Petit, an e-mobility specialist with the Brussels-based campaign group Transport and Environment, says there is a wrong way to go electric – and a right one, and producing electric transportation is more energy-intensive than producing a conventionally fuelled automobile.
Once in use, though, electric transportations are much cleaner and energy-efficient. In terms of the environment, the electric vehicles of today are already performing better than internal combustion engines, and this production is estimated to improve as more renewables provide clean electricity to the grid.
But then there are further factors, indicating that more electric cars could generate more traffic in general with Norway being the foremost country in Europe for electric vehicle sales, and as the sales of electric cars have gone up, the use of public transport to get to work dropped by 80 per cent.
The environmental organization carbon footprint has warned that the benefits of a conversion to e-cars would be restricted if it resulted in more personal car ownership and that instead, governments should concentrate on electrifying public transport.
However, the German government and the country’s car industry are still encouraging private transport, offering buyers an incentive of up to 4,000 Euros to buy an electric car as part of a scheme to promote electromobility, but because of their indirect emissions, there’s been debate over whether electric cars can be called zero-emission vehicles, and it’s a question with far-reaching consequences.
The EU’s new CO2 limits only need to be met on an average that takes account of all the various vehicles a manufacturer produces, and by producing zero-emission vehicles, car makers can also continue to sell gas guzzlers like SUVs that transcend those limits.
And a battery-powered electric vehicle that uses electricity generated by fossil fuels will release slightly more emissions over its lifetime than a diesel-powered car, which is still less than a petrol car, but e-cars that use electricity generated from renewable sources will provide up to six times less carbon over their lifetime than a petrol car. This means that in order for the switch to e-mobility to be most effective, countries will have to transition their energy production in similarity, and renewables made up about 34 per cent of Germany’s energy mix in 2016, and by 2035, Germany wants 55 to 60 per cent of its electricity to come from wind, solar and biomass.
Concerns have further been raised about what happens to the complex batteries, which also contain toxic chemicals, at the end of an electric vehicle’s life, so would this create a new environmental crisis? Not if new solutions being developed to give the batteries a second life are successful.
A battery can be used for other purposes rather efficiently but we need to ascertain what ‘whole life’ is for a battery, and there are a number of universities, and scientists that are developing ways to recycle and reuse electric vehicle batteries, for industrial processes, for example.
The longer the battery can be utilised after the life of the vehicle, the lower that vehicle’s environmental impact will be over its lifespan. There’s also continuing research into making the batteries more productive while they’re in the vehicle, and engineers are also looking into how to use electric vehicles as storage devices in the overall energy grid.
A car plugged in overnight could, therefore, feedback into the grid at times of lower renewable energy generation, for example when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing, and there is this broad consensus that while electric vehicles may not be truly zero emission vehicles, they’re still on the whole better for the environment and for the climate than traditional vehicles.
The key in the coming years will be solving how to make sure these new vehicles can become even more eco-friendly. Although the Tesla gigafactory has a battery recycling centre, and I’m sure that eventually there will be a lot more of these.
But there does seem to be a problem and this problem needs to be thought out before we embark on making everything electrical, and cars are going to be a major part of transport for some time to come, and electric transportation alone isn’t going to resolve every problem we have. Sooner or later, reality has a cruel way of encroaching on inventions of the future, and it’s just a pity that real thinking doesn’t come first, and the dilemma of recycling will be resolved when the problem of refuelling is solved.
Rather than recharging your own battery, it would make a lot more sense to go to a station and exchange the battery for a fully charged one. The cost of a swap would cover the cost, battery rental and charges for recycling, and recycling would become considerably more manageable with a restricted number of pick up locations.
It would further improve the uptake of new battery technologies as the battery stations would have an interest in continually expediting boundaries to improve their competitiveness. I guess there are many pluses and minuses to this, and it appears that a little has been thought through but not all of it, but politicians have made the decision and industry is expected to make all the changes to conform, but how will the electricity for this be produced, and will it apply to trucks, and if so, will that work?
Traffic will have increased, so will traffic management change? Especially to truck trains and vehicle trains, and will there be the same spontaneity of driving that there is today, or will it be much more superintended?