The United Kingdom government announced new diesel and petrol vehicles will be banned within the UK from 2040 as a means of tackling air pollution. Electric cars are regarded as a cleaner alternative with roughly 266 million vehicles expected to be on the road by 2040 according to petroleum organisation OPEC. France also set 2040 as the year in which petrol and diesel cars will be completely banned. The ban of diesel cars by 2040 sounds good for environmentalists, but such a decision needs to be urgent as explained by Gareth Redmond-King, head of climate and energy policy at environment group WWF.
‘‘The government’s been failing to comply with this law for seven years and then it is setting itself a target so far in the future.’’
The implementation is coming too late to fully combat the issue.
Electric cars appear to be the future of transport. They will be powered by Lithium-ion batteries. Simon Moores, of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, believes Lithium is easy to find, and said there is at least 210 million tonnes of it with current annual production at 180,000 tonnes.
Despite being advocated as environmentally-friendly, Li-ion batteries may actually cause environmental issues when produced for electric cars. Waste disposal would be a particularly key problem.
Ajay Kochhar, CEO of Canadian battery recycling organisation, Li-cycle, believes the transition to electric vehicles could leave roughly 11m tonnes of used Li-ion batteries needing recycling from this year until 2030. According to the environmental network, Friends of the Earth Europe, the total number of Li-ion batteries collected in the EU during 2010 was approximately equivalent to 1,289 tonnes along with 297 tonnes of lithium primary batteries.
Recycling such vast quantities of lithium is not easy since it is a highly reactive and flammable material. As a result, the toxic metal can often be dumped in landfill or incinerated, creating pollution problems in itself.
The initial process of producing lithium requires pumping brine from underground using diesel fuel, while metals within the battery management system such as aluminium require a high energy demand.
Amrit Chandan, a chemical engineer at Acelron said: ‘‘It takes so much energy to extract these materials from the ground. If we don’t re-use them we could be making our environmental problems worse.’’
The batteries within electric cars have been estimated as doubling from 20kwh to 40kwh by 2025 as predicted by UK investment bank and research service, Liberum.
Marc Grynberg, chief executive of Umicore, a Belgian materials technology company, said: ‘‘Given their sheer size, batteries cannot be stored at home and landfilling is not an option.’’
As a component of the Li-ion batteries, 8000 to 9000 tonnes of cobalt is believed to be used every year.
This is problematic for those who view the electric car as a clean new technology according to Robert Baylis, managing director of Roskill Information Services, a London research and consultancy service dealing with international metals and minerals.
Mr Baylis said: ‘‘Two-thirds of the mined production of cobalt is from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has an issue with child labour, and environmental standards aren’t good.
‘‘It is then shipped to China, where it is processed, often beyond the sight of environmentalists.’’
As a result, chemical companies such as LG Chem announced they are actively attempting to reduce the cobalt component of their battery cells.