Electric cars are not yet debt-free

Electric cars are not yet debt-free

Last month my 1983 Volvo broke down in a remote part of Oregon. It took two days to get a replacement fuel pump. In those two days, sitting in the dry heat of the High Desert in a plastic chair outside the store, waiting for mechanics to completely replace the old fuel lines under my beloved little sedan, I spent a lot of time thinking about buying one. an electric vehicle. What did I, an environmental journalist, do every day burning fossil fuels to get to point B? in 2022? It was embarrassing.

Today, the hot slogan among climate experts is “Electrify everything”. But electrification has its own environmental impacts. In particular, batteries in mobile telephones and electric cars need minerals to be mined† There is a Real tension between environmentalists who are deeply concerned about the issues associated with the transition to renewable energy and those who view these issues as minor and manageable compared to the ongoing disaster that is the fossil fuel economy.

Rechargeable batteries work by dropping electrons from lithium atoms and then generating current as they run through a circuit to reunite with the lithium ions. To work, the lithium ions have to be moved back and forth between two ends of the battery cell: one is usually made of some kind of metal oxide and the other mostly graphite. Like fossil fuels, lithium, cobalt, nickel and other components must be extracted from the earth in large quantities. In theory, they can be recycled, but they come with a high initial cost – so much so that some people don’t think it’s worth paying.

In Idaho, cobalt is mined on federal land. Some cobalt mining is underway in the Democratic Republic of Congo by children† two of my friends, Ka’ila Farrel Smith and her partner, Cale Christi, fight the proposed Thacker Pass lithium mine in Nevada. They support an indigenous-led activist group called People of the Red Mountainstating that the mine would cause “irreversible harm to the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone tribe, ancestral slaughter, water, air, medicine and culturally significant wildlife.”

And around the world, the mineral extraction process itself produces greenhouse gas emissions. Because of the emissions associated with making batteries, the production of EVs actually emits more greenhouse gases than the production of cars with internal combustion engines.

Of course, once you drive them, the lack of continued emissions from electric cars ultimately makes them the climate winner. After about a year of usedepending on the car and the electricity sources in your area, the emissions from a gas-powered car are starting to outweigh those extra emissions associated with an EV battery. I stared at my sweet little Volvo, on top of the elevator. Nearly 40 years of blowing out planet-roasting fumes. It was unscrupulous.

And while the gas that had burned my Volvo was gone forever, in theory the minerals in a battery only need to be wrested from Mother Earth once. After those minerals are in circulation, battery recycling should eventually be able to create a nearly closed loop.

“You have a cobalt atom. It’s the same cobalt atom when you finish recycling,” said Jeff Spangenberger, head of the… ReCell Center in Lemont, Illinois, where industry, academia and government labs are working together to improve battery recycling technologies. “You can recycle these metals indefinitely.” The work ReCell does is based on the expectation that one day most of the metals in new batteries will come from old batteries.

That infinite loop can only really start in decades. With the number of new electric vehicles increasing every year, there are simply not enough old batteries available to provide the necessary minerals. According to Spangenberger, the useful life of a vehicle is approximately 15 years. (Tell that to my Volvo.) The very first EVs with lithium-ion batteries were first sold in 2008. “So they’re not even at the end of their life yet,” he told me. “At some point we will reach an inflection point where we will have most of the materials we need in our products at the end of their life.” And while some recycling systems feel good to consumers but don’t actually work, 99 percent of lead-acid batteries in most gas-powered cars today are recycled, suggesting that if a recycling infrastructure exists, the batteries will find their way there.

That infrastructure is now being developed. Company Li-Cycle, for example, is working on a ‘spoke and hub’ battery recycling system. In the more numerous “spoke” facilities, battery production waste and spent batteries are shredded while being submerged in tanks containing a proprietary liquid. (I asked Kunal Phalpher, the chief strategy officer, if the liquid was “like Coke,” in the sense that he couldn’t tell me the recipe. “Yes,” he replied. “But it’s not actually Coke.”) What emerges is plastic, copper and aluminum, and a black powder made up of 40 percent graphite and smaller amounts of lithium, nickel and cobalt. The name for this substance is very metallic: black mass.

The black mass is then transported to a centralized “hub” facility, where the various elements are separated. While the spoke facilities look like a converter belt of batteries being dumped in a shredder, the more complex hub carries out all kinds of hydrometallurgical processes. It seems, Phalpher told me, more like the kind of place where you could put an action scene in an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, say, command—“a series of pipes and tanks and pumps.”

Ultimately, 95 percent of battery minerals are recovered. So there is a little loss. There will probably always be some loss in the system – some minerals that can’t be recovered, some batteries that never make it to the recycling center. That means some mining. The only exception would be if demand for EV batteries falls, leaving more minerals in circulation than the market needs. What could make that happen? Maybe some new technology we haven’t even dreamed of — something, Spangenberger joked, like the “flux capacitor” through which the time-traveling DeLorean enters Back to the futurecommandBack to the future: These reference points are almost as old as my car.

The bottom line is that to get enough minerals into circulation so that car buyers of the future can buy electric cars that are 95 percent recycled, humanity will have to continue mining for many years to come. For some, that’s a price worth getting rid of fossil fuels — especially if, in this great first effort, the inevitable damage is minimized or treated more fairly. For others it is unacceptable.

The journalist David Roberts, who closely follows sustainable energy for his newsletter, Volt, believes that concerns about the extraction of resources needed for the transition to renewable energy are legitimate, but also potentially ‘exploitable’ for those who want to continue to take advantage of the status quo of oil and gas. And while there are real problems, they can be solved. “We should try to diversify the lithium market, and we should try to impose labor and environmental standards,” he says — not forgetting that this new system represents a huge improvement over a powered-up world. by fossil fuels. The status quo, he says, is “a fucking nightmare.”

My fuel pump has been repaired. I hit the road again, still unsure of the most ethical course. Want to drive this old Volvo for as long as possible? Recycle now and buy a used EV? Trying to go car-free? “I mean, you could calculate the life cycle,” Roberts told me — he recently bought an EV himself after “years of Hamlet-esque indecision.” But what is ultimately more powerful than a single consumer decision is to create a system in which a transition from fossil fuels is done as ethically, safely and as quickly as possible.

I asked my friend Cale what he thinks about that transition – how we’re supposed to get by without mining lithium; he replied that the problem is our current culture, not just the cars, but also the resource-intensive militarism and incessant consumerism. By reorienting us around our local communities, you don’t have to drive at all. If he thinks long-term, he says, “maybe we should get by less.”

As a child of the 20th century American West, I have to admit that sounds difficult. I love this feeling, this feeling of being free and radically mobile, the windows hand down and the volume up. What I want is this feeling, but without the guilt. And that’s something I can’t have.