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How environmentally friendly are electric cars, really?

How environmentally friendly are electric cars, really?

[Common] Get into the guts of a car and you’ll find all those polluting parts. Gas tanks and exhaust systems. But here in a graveyard of cars Maritime auto parts Andrew McDonald is extracting something new. So this is where you keep the batteries? Yeah, we store them here before we ship them out. This is them. Not just any batteries but the power source propelling electric vehicles. The most significant shift to cars since well cars first existed. Back when the internal combustion engine was first used on wheels no one gave much thought to its carbon footprint. Kind of how we got to the point we’re at today. Nearly a quarter of carbon emissions come from the transportation sector. For manufacturers under pressure now from consumers and governments electric vehicles are seen as the new direction. Batteries not just at the center of the cars but central to their green success. So are they greener? How much so? Back of the salvage yard we’ve set up our own little studio to get to the truth about EV’s footprint. Hi Jennifer Dunn. Hi. Okay, so you work at Northwestern University’s Center for engineering sustainability and resilience and you’re the person to answer this question. What are the things when it’s an electric vehicle that you take into account about its
environmental impact. One really important aspect of an EV to think about is its battery. There are a lot of moving parts there to really dig into to understand the environmental effects. So what what are the kinds of things that you consider? The cathode material that helps power the battery is produced from a number of different metals. So things like nickel and cobalt and lithium and each of those metals has kind of a different supply chain. [Common] Lithium is the component of choice for today’s batteries capable of packing more than 10 times the power of a daily households electric needs into a car. And that’s led to big lithium demand expected to at least triple by 2025. Already mining is eating up freshwater supply in South America’s lithium rich regions requires harsh chemicals in extraction in North America. Then there’s copper, nickel, cobalt all with dark sides of their own. So what’s the solution? There are many efforts to try and think about responsible supply chains but there’s still more that we can do to understand this and we’re really at an opportunity stage now where we’re starting still to ramp up our use of EVs and we have a chance to really understand the supply chain understand the environmental effect and and who are best to make those as minimal as possible. So we are at a stage where electric vehicles are better for the environment but they’re not some utopia. There’s very few things that are utopian and so it’s one thing that I do is try to understand the supply chains understand where we can improve things. I guess where you get your electricity to charge your battery really matters too? That does matter, you’re right. In fact if one were to use purely coal-fired electricity to charge your EV then the environmental benefits — The GHG benefits aren’t as clear. [Common] Coal is one of the least green ways to generate electricity for anything including EV’s. But coal generated power is still cleaner than burning gasoline in a regular car. Not according to Jennifer’s numbers generally though. North American electrical grids which
charge EV’s are made up of a mix. Some coal but plenty of nuclear and hydro. An EV powered by that mix means half the missions of a gas car but pure renewables like wind that’s where EV’s really maximize their potential. Virtually no negative impact on the environment. Of course even if we get to better mining practices more responsible supply chains and renewable electrical grids we still have piles of batteries in Andrews yard. And many others. What about those? Yes, so the manufacturers build these things and then we’re expected to figure out what those cars are made of. So, one side of you have got lots of plastic components and metal components but now these are complicated chemistry’s that we’re trying to figure out so there’s lots of stuff going on in the research labs around the world trying to figure out what to do with these things but certainly there’s a big potential for what you can do with them. [Common] One of the top lithium battery research labs in the world is actually right here in Canada. Dalhousie’s physics department looking at both after life applications for batteries and extending the life of the batteries themselves. In the world of lithium-ion Jeff Dahn is a bit of a God. The man behind the groundbreaking paper on the million mile battery. But not above teaching us the basics. [Common] What’s that? [Dahn] That’s a flat pouch type lithium-ion cell. So I have here small cells that we use in our research and if you cut open this pouch and extract what we call the jelly roll you can see what it looks like. And this aluminum foil is the current collector for the positive electrode. We come to this black material. That’s the positive electrode material in this case it’s in our jargon called NMC. Stands for lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide. [Common] I did think as you were unrolling it but it looked like a fruit roll-up. [Dahn] Yeah, that’s why we call it a jelly roll. [Common] Really? [Dahn] Yeah. [Common] Okay. [Dahn] That’s exactly why it’s called the jelly roll. [Common] So in all of this is just a small version of what could be in a car. You’re trying to stuff a whole lot more power into that. [Dahn] Yeah, yeah, that’s the idea. [Common] After 30 years in the industry he sees where we’ve come from and also where we have to go. [Common] So what’s the big picture problem you’re trying to solve here? We’re trying to help make lithium-ion batteries last longer. We’re trying to help lower their cost and we’re trying to improve their energy density so they can store more energy per unit weight. [Common] Why does that kind of thing matter in our broader society? You have to eliminate fossil fuels, it’s
clear. Okay and if you want to use renewable energy for your source of power well the sun and the wind aren’t there all the time. So it means you have to be able to store electrical energy and more importantly — How the heck do you figure out if a battery’s gonna last 30 years in experiments that only take a few weeks and that’s challenging. It’s fun. [Common] What’s the fun part? Solving these problems, that’s what scientists do right? They get involved in their work and they think man, I want to figure this out. I want to develop methods to solve these problems. [Common] Solving big problems. Not just how to get a car to go fast, run for a long time, run reliably but also how to ensure the greener option gets even more so. David Common, CBC News, Mississauga Ontario.

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