15th October 2021

How sustainable are electric cars ?

How environmentally friendly is the electric car? Dr. Félix Urbain, senior innovation consultant at Nordic Innovators P/S, knows the answer.

1. Whether cell phones, laptops, robotic lawnmowers, razors or e-bikes, thousands of tons of copper are used for our everyday devices.

Regardless of whether it is a combustion engine or an electric car, how much copper is in our cars?

On average, Electric vehicles (EVs) contain between 82 and 85 kg of copper. It is one of the most critical raw material for EVs, used mainly for wires in the electric motor and electrical connections for electronics and battery packs. Compared to conventional cars, today’s EVs almost quadruple the amount of copper used.

In fact, as we head further towards net-zero emissions, record quantities of copper will be required, not only for EVs, but also for solar panels, wind turbines and battery storage. It can thus only be hopped that the mining industry assumes its responsibility in this impending boom and does not gloss over copper’s sustainability challenges.

2. Electric cars need batteries; but these contain cobalt and lithium. How harmful is this to our global water cycle?

The current public debate on electromobility gives the impression that both cobalt and lithium are extracted exclusively in inhumane conditions. However, this must be put into perspective in both cases.

Regarding cobalt, the German Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources states that well over 80 % of cobalt ore comes from the industrial mines of international corporations, where one must assume that for instance child labour plays no role.

According to scientific data, the production of one kilogramme of lithium (from evaporation in salt basins) requires about 2000 litres of water. Thus, to produce a large TESLA battery (100 kWh), which requires approx. 7 kg of pure lithium, approx. 14,000 litres of water are used. Without question, this is a frighteningly high value. However, one must bear in mind that the water pumped up from underground is so salty that it could not be used as drinking water or for agriculture.

Moreover, the fact is that lithium has been extracted and used in the same way for decades. To date, the demand for lithium for chemical industrial applications and mobile devices is greater than that for EVs.

3. Lithium ion batteries can be recycled up to 96%. What is made of the extracted substances?

Today, industrial battery recycling is largely carried out according to the principle of the Duesenfeld process or electrohydraulic fragmentation treatment (“crushing”). Both techniques make it possible to recover individual metals (e.g. manganese, graphite, cobalt, nickel and lithium) as well as coherent valuable components (e.g. electrodes, separators, electrical foils) that can be directly reused to build batteries again. In addition to conserving resources, fewer pollutants are produced during the actual recycled production process. Thus, the CO2 footprint during the recycling for the production of batteries is reduced by around 40 % compared to a completely new production.

4. Many experts see hydrogen as the future. Would you agree with that?

It is high time to understand that hydrogen isn't the fuel of the future. It's already here! The “hydrogen vs. battery” debate thus has become superfluous and is definitively not conducive to a wider deployment of clean energy. Industry stakeholders, instead of trying to elbow one of both technologies out of the market to make the other succeed, must start to think of a more holistic approach. Only by including all accessible green technology means we can achieve a fully sustainable society.

In the latter, hydrogen is one important piece of the puzzle. Although, around 40% less efficient for the usage in transportation than battery-electric driven vehicles, it is by far the most efficient energy carrier, capable of storing 210-times more energy per kilogram than commercial lithium-ion batteries.

5. Isn't an H2 car actually an electric car? After all, don't we need electrical energy to produce H2?

Green hydrogen requires electrical energy produced from renewable energies to drive the electrolysis process, in which water is split into oxygen and hydrogen. Grey and blue hydrogen, however, are produced using fossil fuels (and high temperatures and pressures).

When the produced hydrogen is used in fuel cells, regardless of whether being green, blue or grey, electricity is produced to drive an electric motor, exactly like in a purely electric vehicle.

6. What's your conclusion? Diesel, combustion or electric car? Which one pollutes our environment the least?

The electric vehicle, by far! Scientific facts don’t lie.

7. What are your five sustainability tips when it comes to electric cars?

Five sustainability tips for electric cars

For me, electric mobility will become even more sustainable if:

1. the vehicles become more efficient, smaller and lighter,

2. the electricity comes from renewable energy,

3. battery production and recycling use more sustainable materials,

4. electric vehicles are increasingly used in fleet operations,

5. it paves the way to "car-free" cities.

About the blog:

There is an urgent need for rapid transition to Global Environmental Sustainability. Thanks to changemakers, progress is possible. "Why does it matter?" is a bi-monthly series that takes a quick look at the forefront of today's trends around  sustainability. From May 2021 on, we aim to elucidate this important topic through the eyes of our experts. 

Your contribution counts too! From June on, don't miss out our experts' practical tips for your daily life.

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