In the first quarter of 2023, there were 2.3 million electric vehicle (EV) sales, a 25% increase from the previous year. As EV sales keep growing, so will the need for more to be made. What could this mean for the environmental impact of these game-changing vehicles?
On one side, the supporters claim that the environmental benefits of EVs are obvious. But others argue that there are cons that make the ‘electric revolution’ far from perfect.
These opinions can be overwhelming for the general public deciding whether to buy an EV. So, what is the truth? Find out in this blog that will examine the true impact of the EV production chain.
The true environmental impact of EV production
To uncover the truth about the environmental impact of EV production, it is important to examine each part of the manufacturing process. In the next section, we will look into three key steps of EV production to reveal the real situation.
1. Chassis and body
Before we look at these two pieces of an EV, let’s define them.
- Chassis: the chassis is the skeleton of the car, supporting the internal components.
- Body: the body acts as the skin, providing the outward appearance of the car.
When choosing what material to use, there are some considerations to make. These are:
- Weight and efficiency: the use of lower-weight materials improves the energy efficiency and range of an EV.
- Strength and durability: the material must provide the strength needed to keep the structure of the vehicle.
- Safety: the material should be able to withstand energy during collisions to protect passengers.
These factors have made aluminium the obvious choice for the chassis and body of EVs. This metal has many benefits, including:
- Lightweight: aluminium is lighter than traditional materials, which contributes to improved energy efficiency.
- Corrosion resistant: the metal has an oxide layer that provides corrosion resistance and extends components’ lifecycle.
- Strength: aluminium is light but can still provide enough strength to meet safety requirements.
- Recyclability: aluminium is a very recyclable material reducing the need for new raw materials.
It is estimated that about 250 kg of aluminium is used in each EV. That is an extra 25-27% more than the average petrol or diesel engine. By 2030, the EV industry will need ten million tonnes of aluminium to keep up with demand.
Does the mining of this rare material have a negative environmental impact?
The extraction process involves five key steps, which are:
Mining: bauxite is mined, a rock that contains aluminium minerals.
Digestion: the bauxite is crushed into a powder and mixed with sodium hydroxide to make a liquor.
Clarification and precipitation: the aluminate liquor is cooled before being added to crystals.
Calcination: the aluminium hydroxide is heated to remove the water content, creating alumina.
Electrolysis: an electrical current is sent through the solution to separate the ions.
Environmental impact of aluminium mining
There are numerous negative environmental effects surrounding aluminium extraction, including:
- Deforestation: bauxite mining is a major reason for the destruction of the rainforest across the globe. Large areas of the forest must be destroyed to retrieve this precious resource.
- Toxic waste: making aluminium from bauxite creates a toxic sludge, known as ‘red mud’, that is corrosive.
- Energy consumption: a great amount of energy is needed to make aluminium. Between 13 to 15 megawatts of electricity must be used to create one ton of aluminium.
- Air pollution: producing aluminium releases harmful gases into the air. This includes: carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, hydrogen sulphide, and nitrogen oxide.
- Soil pollution: during the creation of aluminium, large amounts of waste material can leak into the soil.
Positives of aluminium mining
Aluminium mining is more environmentally friendly than traditional vehicle manufacturing. The environmental benefits of using this metal to manufacture these components are:
- Recyclability: it is believed that between 95 to 98% of aluminium can be recycled. This means that a lot of the metal used in manufacturing comes from recycled sources.
- Energy efficiency: producing aluminium from recycled materials requires less energy.
- Land use: bauxite is often found closer to the surface, reducing the need for extensive mining.
- Water conservation: the process of removing aluminium from bauxite requires comparatively little water to other minerals.
- Durability: aluminium has a long lifespan meaning that less raw material needs to be mined.
Other environmental factors
There are a few more factors to consider when look at the environmental impact of these parts.
- Energy consumption in manufacturing: manufacturing processes involved in creating the chassis take a lot of energy.
- Material transportation: transporting materials and components to workshops can generate emissions and consume energy.
- Welding and joining processes: chassis manufacturing often involves welding and joining processes that can produce emissions.
2. Battery production
The most controversial part of EV production is the battery pack. Many critics state that the production of this component alone reduces any benefits. Is there any truth to this?
Benefits of lithium-ion
The industry has turned toward lithium-ion batteries to run EVs. The reliance on this type of battery is due to different things, including:
- High energy density: lithium-ion batteries are able to store a lot of energy in a small package.
- Efficiency: this type of battery uses a large portion of the energy stored in the battery to power the vehicle.
- Long cycle life: these batteries can do a large number of cycles before their capacity reduces.
- Fast charging: these batteries can support fast charging, allowing EVs to recharge quickly.
- Lower self-discharge: lithium-ion batteries can hold their charge for long periods when not in use.
Environmental impact of cobalt and lithium mining
The main impact of these batteries comes from the mining of the materials. To make one EV battery, manufacturers will need to get 8 kg of lithium, 14 kg of cobalt, and 20 kg of manganese.
The bad effects of mining cobalt and lithium are outlined in the table below.
Air and water pollution: Mining can release chemicals into the air or water sources. These can have harmful effects on the environment and human health.
Deforestation: Mining can lead to the destruction of natural habitats to retrieve minerals. This can result in the loss of wildlife.
Soil degradation: Mining can disturb soil which can impact agriculture.
Water contamination: Chemicals can enter nearby water sources, contaminating rivers and streams. This can harm aquatic life and communities that rely on this water for drinking.
Health risks: Workers and nearby communities are exposed to adverse health risks.
Human rights concerns: Cobalt mining has been linked with human rights violations.
Water consumption and pollution: Mining often needs a lot of water, which can use local water resources. Additionally, mining can lead to water pollution through the release of chemicals.
Habitat disruption: Lithium mining can destroy habitats, leading to harm to animals and plants.
Air pollution: Dust from mining can lead to air pollution, affecting human health.
Greenhouse gas emissions: Extracting and refining lithium ores can cause greenhouse gas emissions.
Another thing to consider is the manufacturing process of lithium-ion batteries. It is believed that 60% of all greenhouse gas emissions produced during EV manufacturing come from the battery. This means the creation of a standard 75 KWH battery could result in seven tons of CO2.
Factors to consider
These statistics overlook the factors that affect the impact of manufacturing, which include:
- Energy source: if manufacturing relies on electricity made from fossil fuels, the generated gases will be higher.
- Supply chain: longer transportation distances and inefficient routes can increase the overall carbon footprint.
- Recycling and disposal: recycling processes can reduce the need for new material extraction and minimise waste.
- Regulations and standards: strict environmental regulations for battery production can force manufacturers to adopt cleaner practices.
The geographic factor
Most car batteries are made in Asian countries, such as China, South Korea, and Japan. In these regions, the use of carbon to generate electricity is especially high. In fact, some estimates claim that over75% of energy in this region comes from the burning of fossil fuels.
New manufacturing superpowers in Europe will decrease greenhouse gases during production. This is due to these countries having a cleaner approach to making energy. Check out the table below to see how these regions currently produce energy.
The Biden administration has said it will eliminate the use of fossil fuels by 2035, with a target of 80% renewable energy generation by 2030. This switch to cleaner energy will further decrease greenhouse gases during manufacturing,
The colour and quality of a paint job is likely one of the first things someone will notice about any vehicle. However, what is the environmental cost of these aesthetics?
The automotive industry uses solvent paints to get the desired look of vehicles. When this paint is used, the solvent evaporates, leaving behind a layer of pigment and binder that sticks to the surface of the vehicle.
Benefits of solvent paints
For years, solvent paints have been the industry norm for many reasons, including:
- Aesthetic: solvent-based paints are known to produce a high-gloss and durable finish.
- Fast drying time: solvent-based paints have faster drying times compared to other types of paints.
- Adhesion and resistance: these paints stick well to different surfaces, contributing to durability.
Volatile organic compounds
The main impact of solvent paint is the release of chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOC).
Common VOCs found in solvent paint include:
The main environmental impact of these chemicals is the creation of low-level ozone. When VOCs interact with gases in sunlight, it creates thick smog. Smog can cause health conditions, including: nose, eye, and throat irritation.
In 1952, The Great Smog occurred over a five-day period in London, leading to over 4,000 deaths and 100,000 related illnesses.
Some EV manufacturers have started to use water-based alternatives for painting. Water is used as the carrier instead of solvents, which reduces the environmental impact.
Check out the table below for a full breakdown of the pros and cons of this environmentally friendly way of painting.
Water-based paints release fewer VOCs, improving air quality.
Water-based paints have longer drying times compared to solvent-based paints.
Workers are around fewer toxic fumes, leading to better indoor air quality.
Equipment for water-based paint application costs more.
Tools, equipment, and brushes used with water-based paints can be cleaned easily with water.
Water-based paints might need controlled curing conditions to get the best results.
Water-based paints release less smell during application and drying.
This type of paint might not be right for certain materials, especially those that are not water-resistant.
Water-based paints give a high-quality finish, offering protection against both weather and wear.
It is more difficult to match colours when using water-based paints.
The green truth
The truth is that, yes, the production of EVs does have a considerable environmental impact. Unfortunately, this is very common in any form of manufacturing.
However, it is important to note that the environmental footprint of EVs is much less than that of traditional car manufacturing. This is due to the smart choices that manufacturers make in terms of both the materials and processes involved.
The environmental impact of the auto industry is not limited to either electrical vehicles or internal combustion engines. This fact shows the need for governments and manufacturers of all kinds to have a serious talk about minimising the impact of the industry.