Hailed as a route to a carbon-free, green future, electric car batteries have the world’s superpowers vying for a slice of what promises to be a lucrative market.
But lithium-ion batteries are not without environmental and ethical drawbacks – here’s what you need to know about the rapidly developing technology.
– Powered by lithium –
Electric vehicles, or EVs, have an electric motor instead of an internal combustion engine. They can be powered by fuel cells that generate electricity from hydrogen or a rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack.
Each cell in the battery pack contains a positive electrode, which generally contains lithium and cobalt, and a negative electrode, which contains graphite.
As the atoms move between the cell’s electrodes, they create energy that drives the motor.
Electric vehicles generate little noise, do not pollute where they are used and require less maintenance, as they have far fewer moving parts than internal combustion cars.
– European roadmap on batteries –
The electric vehicle market is accelerating rapidly as consumers seek greener alternatives to gasoline and diesel, and the European Commission predicts that the number of electric vehicles on the road will grow tenfold, to 200 million by 2028 .
Batteries account for about 40 percent of the value of an electric car, and China currently controls two-thirds of global cell manufacturing.
But the EU hopes to increase its share from the current three percent to 25 percent by 2028.
Last year, the bloc approved 3.2 billion euros of state subsidies from France, Germany, Finland, Sweden, Italy, Belgium and Poland to stimulate a European battery industry and meet local demand.
Plans have so far been laid out for a number of gigantic European “gigafactories,” including a colossal Tesla plant in Germany and a billion-dollar facility in Sweden partially funded by Volkswagen.
– A green illusion? –
Unlike gasoline or diesel vehicles, electric cars do not emit emissions when they move.
But batteries have their own share of ecological shortcomings, firstly because charging batteries requires electricity that can be generated by coal or nuclear power plants.
Removing the chemicals from the battery also has a significant environmental impact, which can lead to leakage of toxic substances into waterways.
Batteries also come at a human cost: more than half of the world’s cobalt, a key ingredient in batteries, currently comes from mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where organizations like Amnesty have documented rights abuses and the use of child labor. .
Meanwhile, battery recycling opportunities remain limited with some industry observers warning that global cobalt supplies are already running low and will not be scaled up to meet future demand.
– A long way to go –
Battery technology still has room for development: cells take a long time to charge, are expensive to produce, and the distance that can be driven in one go is limited.
But in September, Tesla announced breakthroughs that it said will allow it to cut battery manufacturing costs to accelerate a global shift to renewable energy, and it could have a $ 25,000 autonomous model available in about three years.
Meanwhile, US manufacturer GM unveiled its plans for fast-charging Ultium batteries in March, with a range of up to 400 miles (645 kilometers).
While battery electric vehicles have dominated in recent years, interest in fuel cells has recently been renewed. These convert hydrogen into electricity and emit nothing but water vapor. They offer a longer range and are quick to refuel, but like batteries, electric vehicles are currently expensive to produce and would require large investments in the development of the refueling infrastructure.