Anti-battery propaganda on Facebook

Perhaps one of your Facebook friends posted this piece of propaganda on their feed:

This machine is required to move 500 tons of earth/ore which will be refined into ONE lithium car battery.
It burns 900-1000 gallons of fuel in a 12 hour shift.
Lithium is refined from Ore using sulfuric acid.
A battery in an electric car, lets say an average Tesla, is made of …
25 pounds of lithium,
60 pounds of nickel,
44 pounds of manganese,
30 pounds of cobalt,
200 pounds of copper,
400 pounds of aluminum, steel, and plastic etc.
That averages 750-1,000 pounds of minerals, that had to be mined and processed into a battery that merely stores electricity …
Electricity which is generated by oil, gas, coal, nuclear, or water (and a tiny fraction of wind and solar)….
That is the truth, about the lie, of “green” energy.
There‚Äôs nothing green about the green new deal… Just a lot of pockets being lined and our environment being destroyed by greed, wilful ignorance and selfishness.

Fossil fuel companies have a lot to lose when the energy transition to renewable carbon-free energy sources takes place. Their whole business model of extracting, refining and selling fossil fuels will collapse. The longer they can delay that transition, they more money they can still make. That’s why they have an interest in spreading propaganda like that post above.

No verifiable source is given for any of the numbers in that text but here are some facts: Typical lithium ores (spodumene) in Australia contain about 1-2% Li, meaning for the 12 kg of Li in a car battery listed above you’d have to mine 0.6 to 1.2 t of ore, a far cry from the 500 t claimed. Since they gave no source it’s hard to know how they came up with such distorted figures.

Another major source of lithium are brines which don’t involve any hard rock mining at all though the quantities available are more limited and there are some issues with water consumption. Some companies are working on extracting lithium from geothermal brines as a side product of geothermal energy production.

The majority of Li-ion batteries produced in China these days are based on Lithium iron phosphate (LFP) chemistry, which unlike earlier Li-ion chemistries (NMC, NCA) do not require either cobalt or nickel (the C and N respectively in those acronyms).

In April 2022, LFP batteries in electric vehicles sold in China already outsold other types of Li-ion car batteries by about 2:1 (8.9 GWh vs 4.4 GWh). Tesla’s entry level models made at the Shanghai Gigafactory have switched to LFP too.

By the time most of us will switch to battery electric vehicles, i.e. within the next decade, LFP is likely to be largely superseded by sodium ion batteries. This new chemistry is technically very similar to Li-ion batteries. German battery expert Frank Wunderlich-Pfeiffer (@FrankWunderli13) estimates that by 2026-2028 sodium ion production will exceed lithium ion on a GWh basis. Why is sodium ion cheaper? Unlike lithium which only occurs in special ores that require processing, sodium makes up 39 percent of common table salt. A cubic meter of sea water contains about 14 kg of it. So any time someone says we don’t have enough lithium needed for replacing internal combustion engine (ICE) cars, they are not really looking at where the industry is heading over the next decade.

Talking about the CO2 output from electricity production is a distraction: Even in places like Poland or West Virginia where much of the power is produced from dirty coal, an electric car is responsible for less CO2 output than an ICE car because power plants are far more efficient than car engines. But the main point to remember is that the mix of energy sources will dramatically shift over the next 15-20 years, the lifetime of a car produced today. This will make BEVs cleaner every year. 20 years from now a gasoline powered car will still depend 100% on gasoline and emit as much CO2 in 2042 as it did in 2022. Meanwhile a BEV will run on a zero-carbon mix of solar, wind, nuclear and geothermal once the grid has been fully upgraded.

For those promoting hydrogen as an alternative to BEVs: That’s not going to happen. Hydrogen is not a viable alternative to BEVs, except maybe for trucks, ships and airplanes. There are several reasons for that. For a start, fuel cells are much more expensive than batteries. Battery prices have been falling faster than fuel cell prices which depend on platinum, a rare metal much more costly than any of the metals mentioned when people talk about batteries. Not coincidentally it is also the most widely used material for electrodes of electrolysers. Its second largest producer is Russia, a country now widely sanctioned because of a war that its government started.

BEVs have greatly benefited from demand for batteries by phones, laptops and other mobile devices that have paid for R&D, scaling up production and thus bringing down prices. In fact the first Tesla was based on the same battery cell type that laptops were using at the time. There has been no such synergy for hydrogen. It lacks economy of scale for fuel cells and its distribution system lags far behind while BEVs harness the existing electric grid.

The biggest problem with hydrogen however is the inefficiency of green hydrogen production: It takes roughly three times more electricity for making and consuming hydrogen than to charge and discharge a battery for a given driving distance. That’s because there are more energy losses turning electricity into hydrogen and back into electricity than there are in charging and discharging a battery. Because of this we’d have to build three times more wind turbines and solar panels to replace the same number of ICE cars with hydrogen cars than we would with BEVs. And it’s even worse with ICEs running on hydrogen, a concept promoted by some car manufacturers. On top of that ICEs burning hydrogen have higher smog-forming NOX emissions than ICE cars running on fossil fuels. BEVs don’t release any NOX. If you want clean air, BEVs beat hydrogen hands down.

In a world facing disastrous climate change that urgently needs to get down to zero carbon emissions, ICE cars have no future. Sticking with ICE cars isn’t an option. The choice is not between ICE cars or BEVs, it’s between either BEVs or walking, riding a bicycle or using public transport.

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