The much-discussed move to electric propulsion vehicles from internal combustion engines is no longer just a discussion. Electric vehicles (EVs) are a reality that is now an accepted part of the transportation ecosystem. LMC Automotive US, an automotive sales researcher, reports that worldwide EV sales in 2022 accounted for 10% of new vehicle sales (or 7.8 million units), an increase of 68% from 2021. Bloomberg NEF forecasts that EVs will reach 35% of worldwide new car sales by 2040.
This move to EVs has been publicized as the adoption of an exciting and transformative technology that will free society from fossil fuels, reduce vehicle operating costs and, most importantly, help protect the environment.
The question right now is, how are EVs living up to their hype, particularly in the area of environmental friendliness? While it is somewhat early in the lifecycle of EVs to definitively link them with either eco-rescue or damage, there are some things to consider, particularly from the viewpoint of engineering challenges. In this discussion, we dig a little deeper into these challenges. Our friends at OnlineComponents.com also offer a high-level overview of electric vehicles and some of the issues.
Similarities and Differences
EVs are, in most respects, very similar to vehicles with internal combustion powerplants. They contain metal, rubber, plastics, chemicals, and lubricants. Most of these things have been part of the vehicle recycling chain for many years. But EVs also contain rechargeable batteries, with hundreds of cells typically housed in a large battery pack at the bottom of the vehicle.
Using rechargeable batteries and regenerative breaking in EVs, along with efficient electric motors for propulsion, means zero tailpipe emissions, reduced vapor escape during refueling, and no used engine oil to dispose of or recycle. Recharging an EV battery is also claimed to be better for the environment because electric energy generation is more efficient than fossil fuel production.
From an engineering standpoint, the large battery pack in a modern EV is a strong design element. Not only does it free the vehicle from carrying a tank full of explosive fuel and vapors, it also enables a much lower vehicle center-of-gravity for better handling and roll-over protection and eliminates the large engine block that can shift in a crash.
While each of these positive factors regarding EVs is very real, there are some other issues that need to be discussed if the full promise of EVs is to be realized.
Four Areas of Concern
Number One: Battery Chemistry
Today’s rechargeable batteries are designed and built with chemistries using rare and toxic metals that come with significant design, use, and recycling challenges. The high-energy density chemistry of Lithium-Ion batteries makes them an efficient choice for EVs, but lithium production requires large amounts of water, and the toxic chemicals used in the process can subsequently leak into the environment.
Lithium-Ion batteries are also subject to fire or explosion if subject to overheating, an incursion of water or other fluids into the battery containment, or rupture during an accident. These fires can burn extremely hot and also release toxins into the air. Other battery components, like cobalt and copper, are sourced using open-pit mining, which is not known to be eco-friendly. Cobalt mining can also release toxic byproducts into the water table in geographic regions least able to deal with the problem.
Number Two: Battery Life
Based on manufacturer's warranties, EV batteries currently have a 100,000-mile or eight-year lifecycle. With EV unit sales rapidly accelerating in just the last several years and that eight-year window rapidly approaching on some of the initial models, it doesn’t take much to spot the problem. Batteries approaching the end of their lifecycle lose depth of charge efficiency and suffer range problems as a result. The solution, which is similar to any other battery-driven system, is a replacement, which leads to our next issue - recycling.
Number Three: Recycling
Currently, the battery packs in EVs are designed for energy output and range and not for recycling or disassembly. The typical EV battery pack contains hundreds of cells wired together and anchored with strong adhesive. The cells are encased in a metal enclosure to seal the individual elements from moisture incursion, short circuits, and potential danger of fire or explosion. The battery pack becomes part of the vehicle underneath the passenger compartment.
EV battery packs are subsequently very difficult and costly to remove from the vehicle. Because of the adhesives used, it is also difficult and dangerous to de-construct and harvest the individual cells from the battery pack in order to remove the component metals for recycling without the use of burning or chemical treatment, which can cause additional disposal and environmental issues.
In fact, according to Chemical and Engineering News, today, most lithium batteries end up in landfills, with only around 5% of them worldwide being recycled.
Number Four: Non-Tailpipe Emissions
While EVs do not produce tailpipe emissions at the point of usage, they still use energy for recharging. This process typically relies on the existing electrical grid and must be generated in some fashion. The true environmental benefit of EVs is dependent on this source of energy. While most electric energy generation for the grid is more efficient than running an internal combustion engine, there are varying levels of environmental impact that depend on the generation type. EVs that are charged with electricity from coal plants, natural gas plants, or even diesel generators are simply shifting their tailpipe emissions elsewhere.
EV recharging using the electrical grid also poses concerns for overall electrical grid stability if demand is not managed, generating capacity is not increased, and even wiring infrastructure made more robust.
The Current Outlook
The problems with sourcing battery materials, battery manufacturing, battery life, chemistry, and recycling are all real issues that will require individual solutions. These solutions, while challenging, are being attacked by inventive engineers worldwide. Some of the answers might include reuse of EV batteries in other products, battery pack designs for safer and easier disassembly, automated disassembly systems, and novel designs using Sodium-Ion or solid-state technology.
Electrical grid stability and capacity are also being addressed by demand management systems, off-peak charging, and the development of renewable energy charging systems.
However, time is also an issue. As we have noted, battery packs have a defined lifecycle, the end of which for the initial designs is rapidly approaching. In fact, according to a new outlook from EV manufacturers Polestar, Rivian, and consulting firm Kearney, in order to meet the carbon emissions target of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, carmakers will need to be able to charge EVs entirely on power generated by renewable sources by 2033 and cut supply chain and manufacturing emissions by over 80% from today’s levels.
From an environmental standpoint, EVs look attractive at first. A closer look, however, reveals that their increasing adoption will raise challenging problems from an ecological perspective. These problems are not dissimilar to those apparent from the continued use of internal combustion vehicles.
The largest environmental issue with EVs lies in their batteries. The materials used in their construction create environmental issues at both the mining and disposal stages. Manufacturing the batteries is also energy intensive; charging the battery packs uses energy generated by fossil fuels, and recycling them is difficult and dangerous.
It will require intelligent and creative engineering designs, and some fortuitous technology breakthroughs from professionals like you, to realize the full potential of the EV revolution.