Assessing the sustainability of electric vehicles
Electric vehicles are everywhere, from the road itself to the adverts on our televisions. There has been a significant increase in the number of electric vehicles being bought in many countries, and the sustainability of electric vehicles is becoming of more importance to buyers. In the UK, the transition from fossil fuel to electric vehicles is constantly growing, and this transition will play a major role in our journey towards net zero emissions.
Our planet has seen dramatic transformation in many areas due to numerous human activities, from deforestation and agriculture to the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels. The release of these harmful emissions into the atmosphere has led to the climate crisis we are currently facing. This has forced nations to collaborate and take desperate action to begin tackling climate change and create solutions.
It’s now easy to notice electric vehicles on our roads and they’re no longer the rare sight that they were many years ago. More electric vehicles equals less petroleum-based vehicles, and therefore implies a reduction in fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions. There are multiple aspects that need to be considered when assessing the sustainability of electric vehicles. Not only the day-to-day running of them, but also their construction, maintenance and eventual disposal.
The transition to electric vehicles
There has been a shift in culture as people are becoming more environmentally aware, with many recognising the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This has stemmed from improved education, greater media coverage and unfortunately regular reminders of the harm being caused. The climate crisis has been taking its toll on many parts of the world, with increased flooding, droughts and extreme weather events. The sheer volume of greenhouse gas emissions that we produce has resulted in the atmospheric composition being drastically altered.
There has also been an extensive marketing and advertising push for electric vehicles, with major car manufacturers now solely advertising their latest electric and hybrid vehicles. Moreover, the UK government is banning the selling of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030. The accessibility of owning an electric vehicle has improved as well, as they’ve become more affordable with better performance and efficiency. For a while, there was a stigma surrounding electric vehicles implying slow charge speeds, poor performance and even not being entirely safe to drive. These have now almost entirely vanished, and the benefits of them are more at the forefront.
Sourcing of materials
Manufacturing of electric vehicles is the initial step to consider from a sustainability perspective. For many manufacturers, the actual designing and production of electric vehicles is also done with sustainability in mind. While an electric vehicle can be labelled sustainable due to the significantly less emissions being produced by the likes of lithium-ion batteries, it’s important to recognise the entire lifecycle of an electric vehicle. The idea of a circular economy is critical for electric vehicle production, where the initial stages of development all the way through to their disposal are considered.
However, the raw materials used in lithium-ion batteries are having to be sourced from the Earth itself. Global lithium and cobalt production is rising sharply to fulfil the demand, and the sourcing of these materials brings about questions from an environmental sustainability perspective. There are thousands of tons being extracted from ore mines in Australia, whereas countries such as Chile and Argentina use lithium-containing saltwater from underground lakes which is evaporated and processed in several stages to form lithium that is suitable for batteries.
Any form of mining or extraction of raw materials from the Earth is harmful to the areas in proximity to the activity. Examples of how lithium mining can impact the local environment includes soil degradation, water shortages, biodiversity loss, and damage to ecosystems. With that being said, it is worth noting that many of the leading car manufacturers do adhere to high environmental and social standards, with multiple being involved in the Responsible Minerals Initiative and the World Economic Forum’s Global Battery Alliance.
Electric vehicle usage
As previously mentioned, electric vehicles don’t use fossil fuels and therefore instantly warrant praise for not producing greenhouse gases when being driven. For example, fuel cell electric vehicles that run on hydrogen only expel water vapour and warm air. When compared to the multiple pollutants produced by petroleum-based vehicles, electric vehicles are much cleaner and have less of an environmental impact. Emissions from vehicles are already decreasing overall due to the number of electric vehicles now on the roads.
However, there is a significant factor underlying the sustainability of electric vehicles. For an electric vehicle to be confidently categorised as sustainable, the electricity charging it must be from a renewable source. Many electric vehicles are currently running on electricity that has been generated using fossil fuels. If the electricity has been generated from fossil fuels, the actual sustainability of an electric vehicle using this electricity becomes less clear.
This ranges heavily depending on locations all around the world. Certain countries offer low-carbon electricity much more readily than others. As with climate change as a whole, when assessing the various factors from a global perspective, it becomes much more complicated. If we’re looking at electricity generation from a local perspective, the UK is rather positive. 43% of the electricity we generate comes from renewable sources, as we continue to generate more electricity from renewable energy than fossil fuels.
Disposal of batteries
Lithium-ion batteries can be recycled to some degree if done correctly using specialist centres. This is not a simple procedure; the methodology of recycling these batteries can vary and the extent of the costs remains steep. Multiple technologies may be used to safely recover the likes of lithium, cobalt and nickel from batteries in a state that allows them to be reused in new batteries. These processes often consider sustainability as a core component of the process, aiming to limit environmental impact and extract as much useful material as possible.
The issue of disposal stems from recycling not being readily available to meet the demand, leading to alternative disposal methods. There has been significant concern over lithium-ion battery disposal in recent years, with evidence pointing towards the dangers of abandoning batteries containing lithium in designated waste sites such as landfill. Firstly, they’re incredibly heavy, so any disposal of these batteries in large quantities leads to them becoming nearly impossible to transfer elsewhere.
Lithium, cobalt, nickel and manganese found within lithium-ion batteries are also toxic and can contaminate water supplies and ecosystems in the event of leaching. Essentially, if these metals are found to infiltrate into the local environment, there can be significant harm caused to wildlife as well as soil degradation and water quality. Furthermore, fires have been known to occur at sites storing lithium-ion batteries, due to the highly flammable lithium and other hazardous chemicals used inside.
Assessing the sustainability of electric vehicles is highly complex due to the sheer volume of factors at play. Once more, these factors range heavily depending on the location around the world. With that being said, the overall impact of electric vehicles is positive and when compared to petroleum-based vehicles, there are significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions being produced. It’s safe to say even with the incredible progress that’s been made over recent years, we’re still in the early stages of electric vehicle development. Therefore technologies for sourcing energy and disposing of batteries should continue to provide new and exciting solutions.
At Elmelin, sustainability is at the heart of everything we do. Our mica-based insulation solutions are available for multiple industries and applications, including electric vehicle batteries. We continue to create innovative insulation solutions for batteries that aim to extend their lifespan and improve their safety without compromising on performance. Compression Pads Plus are just one example of our electric vehicle battery solutions, which help to maintain adequate pressure on the battery pack whilst providing thermal and electrical insulation, improving safety, performance and extending the useful life of the battery.
If you would like to find out more about our solutions and how we could help you, please do get in touch for more information.