Friday, April 02, 2021

Batteries don't grow on trees

This video came across my Twitter timeline and I retweeted it. Rice geophysics professor Cin-Ty Lee explains why nickel and cobalt laterites are found in the areas where biodiversity is greatest. It's pretty heartbreaking.

   

I knew that batteries were very toxic, and that the Cobalt used in them came from DRC*, often using slave or child labor, but I had believed the stories that alternate sources of Cobalt had been found and that would be a nonissue as soon as the alternate sources came online. 

Professor Lee's video made me realize that the most economically viable Cobalt deposits are all in the tropics: Congo, Papua New Guinea and Queensland, Australia.  You reach the deposits either by strip mining in tropical highlands, or mining the oceans.


If you are in the "green-industrial complex" and need to calculate your client's carbon footprint, you end up having to sum the carbon from battery production with the savings that the battery enables.  If battery production includes the carbon released from strip mining tropical rainforests to mine the ore, the potential carbon savings plummets.

I found an open access journal about the Life cycle assessment of cobalt extraction process that gave a picture of the tradeoffs.  Eutrophication means adding nitrogen and silt to waterways from the strip mining.

Highlights

  • The life cycle assessment of the cobalt extraction route is carried out.
  • Blasting and electricity consumption in cobalt mining is damaging to the environment.
  • Eutrophication and global warming are the most affected impact categories.
  • Carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide emission are highest from cobalt mining.
  • Alternative energy sources for electricity generation would enhance sustainability.
One way to avoid destroying tropical rainforests to mine ore is to source your ore from the ocean floor.  I found other articles such as, Deep-ocean polymetallic nodules as a resource for critical materials, that show the potential of deep ocean mining metals used in batteries.  You may not release carbon by cutting down tropical rainforests, but you will make the fishing and tourism industries and coral reef ecologists very angry.  You'll also destroy ocean ecology.  Pesky tradeoffs!

Right now, we're in the battery build up phase.  Eventually, we'll have enough that we can keep recycling them, much as we do for lead-acid batteries.  This will end the destruction caused by mining, but cause other problems.

I did a little research to wrap my head around how much we are talking about.

Lithium-metal batteries are about 10-20% cobalt chemistry, but that includes water, so it's about 1-2% Cobalt by weight.

Teslas have 1060-1200 pounds of batteries or about 55-85 kWh (kiloWatt hours)
The new eHummer has 200 kWh
My Ebike has 0.5 kWh
My Escooter has 0.3 kWh**

Electric cars have 100-500x the batteries and toxicity of Ebikes/Etrikes/Escooters. They are also very very spatially inefficient with road space and urban space (parking).  For rural areas where space is not a problem and distances are large, they make sense.  For the 90+% of Californians and Angelenos living in urban spaces, they are a last solution, not a first solution.

I Ebike about 50 miles on the charge used to move a Tesla X just 1 mile.  Do we really need to move a 4000# car with an additional 1000# of batteries to move one person plus groceries?  I can carry 5 days worth of groceries for 3 on my Ebike without a backpack.  I could probably carry 7 days worth with a backpack, but why bother?

This is why I don't support strongly support electric cars, trucks and buses alone.

We have to get out of single occupancy cars as much as possible, especially in the urbanized areas.

We need to decarbonize transportation using every tool, starting with right-sizing the vehicles for the task.  

We need to use road space more efficiently, which means remodeling our urban environments to make better use of transit and active modes (walking/cycling). 

There is no time to waste.  

We need to do it all at once.

Further reading:


* Just because you rebrand a county from Congo to the Democratic Republic of Congo, doesn't automatically make it so. I refuse to use the Newspeak name.


** A research paper showed the CO2 per passenger-mile for a bunch of different transport modes and the statistic that caught all the media editors' clickbait attention was that shared electric scooters are inefficient.  They are inefficient due to their short lifespans (people trash them) and miles driven in cars by the people who hunt them down, recharge them and restock them.  


A subsequent study showed that privately-owned Escooters are almost as efficient as Ebikes, which are almost as efficient as regular bikes-the most efficient mode of travel ever invented.



5 comments:

  1. Thank you for this sobering and very helpful post. I hadn't seen this info all in one place so easily and clearly put.

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  2. Thank you for this post, actually for this entire series of posts. You always make me more aware, make me rethink and reconsider.

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  3. bicycling is much more dangerous

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    Replies
    1. Exactly. It's dangerous because of motorists and the type of vehicles they drive. It doesn't have to be this way.

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  4. This is a brilliant exploration on batteries and why an EV isn't our transportation silver bullet. Thanks for writing it!

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