A Debate: Are Electric Vehicles Really Worth the Hype?

The progression of the use of motor vehicles from being gasoline-powered to completely electric is becoming more relevant, with around 10 million electric cars on the road in 2020, but what caused the significant jump in its increased use? Are they really worth the hype?

When people began to mass-produce automobiles during the industrialization era, electric vehicles (EVs) were produced on a small-scale but weren’t as popular in comparison to gasoline vehicles which were anticipated to transform the industry globally due to their low cost of maintenance and the discovery of oils and gas in many locations. The concept and cost of production of EVs were not initially cheap either, including the components that are used to power the car’s engine such as its batteries. They did not become popular amongst civilians and were seen as mechanically redundant as they were slow, although being noticeably convenient to use in urban areas by bringing reductions to noise and air pollution. Thus, there was a decline in their use. People wanted something fast, something cheap, and a gasoline-fueled auto engine car has a clear advantage.

The switch from gasoline-powered vehicles to electric cars is predominantly due to the increasing awareness that individuals have concerning the effects of gas-based vehicles to the environment, in comparison to electric vehicles. Typically, a regular gasoline vehicle emits 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year on average, and per kilometer driven emits around 175-650g of carbon dioxide pertaining to the type of vehicle. In contrast, electric vehicles rely on batteries which are its key components that power its other major components that help run the vehicle. Moreover, they are lightweight, possess a fast torque, and are far quieter since they do not have a gas-based engine and may potentially reduce noise pollution in cities.

Could batteries truly be considered as clean-energy?

The type of battery that was frequently assembled in the early inventions of electric vehicles was the nickel-iron battery. Firstly developed by Thomas Edison in the 1900s, it was also referred to as a backup battery as they are only used as a popular secondary storage to lithium-ion batteries, similar to lead-acid batteries. It generates sustainably, in comparison to lithium-ion and lead-acid batteries. When electricity passes through the nickel-iron battery while it is being recharged, it undergoes a chemical reaction and releases both hydrogen and oxygen through a process called electrolysis.

They are still being used today, lasting more than 50 years on average with high resiliency. However, they are evidently expensive because of their high manufacturing cost. The nickel-iron battery is still continuously being researched by engineers and scientists to enhance its effectiveness due to its poor charge retention, which could eventually affect their value to become more affordable. Currently, Stanford University scientists are improving the battery to become more fast charged, with the aim to help power electric vehicles more powerful than Edison’s fundamental development. It can also withstand high temperatures, and does not create chemically toxic fumes that harm the environment.

Lead-acid batteries also function similarly to nickel-iron batteries through electrolysis, but are inexpensive and possibly damaging to the environment, provided that it disposes quickly due to its short lifespan and relies on effective recycling management that varies in countries. Moreover, they were the first form of rechargeable battery to exist, firstly appearing in 1860. Despite its large current capability and tolerance to overcharging, it only has an applicable few years of lifespan, so they are only commonly used in vehicles as a secondary, or third source. Lead-acid batteries need lead to work, which is not environmentally friendly when mined, as when they are stored improperly could contaminate water and pollute the air through fumes. When humans are exposed to lead fumes through inhalation, it could adversely affect the health and increase the risk for cardiovascular diseases.

The lithium-ion battery is the most popular option in powering electric vehicles. It requires lithium and mining for it has a lower environmental footprint in comparison to coal and copper. It also contains less hazardous chemicals such as lead or cadmium, which are found in lead-acid and nickel-cadmium batteries- banned in most countries because of its waste. It also requires low maintenance. There has been a sharp increase in the demand for lithium, which signifies an expansion in the lithium-ion battery industry to subsidize electric vehicles. This is because in comparison with other battery counterparts, lithium-ion batteries are mechanically durable, and have one of the highest energy densities and provide a longer lifespan. Not only are the batteries used for vehicles, but they could be found in recently newly released portable technologies, such as in Apple, due to their efficiency. However, the downsides to the lithium-ion batteries is that their inventions require essential natural resource investments through mining and to receive lithium itself is labor intensive.

In May 2016, China’s largest lithium mine was found to contaminate Liqi River from leaking toxic chemicals coming from the mine and killing wildlife. Fishes were found dead, and cow and yak carcasses were seen lifelessly floating on the river. This shows that extracting lithium harms the soil and water extensively, which affects. Research indicates that the management of lithium-ion batteries does not have a radical implementation or framework, but it solely depends on the country it is being extracted in, as countries have differing policies regarding recycling and resource management. In addition, there have been cases of unregulated child labour in the Republic of Congo in regards to lithium mining.

The world’s incentive to increase the use of electric vehicles

Electric vehicles (EVs) are becoming more affordable to produce with the constant advancements in battery engineering, and are becoming easier to maintain. Although their upfront cost might be more expensive than gas-powered cars, they emit less pollution in comparison to gas-powered cars, keep in mind that electric vehicles still have adverse effects that are detrimental to the environment. This includes the mismanagement of resources, including lithium and lead, that provide components to create batteries, and also the effects of battery-use pertaining to its type (nickel-iron, lead-acid, lithium-ion). However, it still weighs out the use of fossil fuels for vehicles. Moreover, vehicles are still being shipped across the world through cargo ships, which needs intensive energy, and may create marine traffic that harms marine biodiversity.

A major car manufacturer group, Volkswagen, which manages car brands such as Porsche, Bugatti, Audi and Lamborghini, is planning the initiative to completely create electric cars by 2030 and aims to be carbon dioxide neutral by 2050. In addition to this, other major car manufacturing companies such as Honda, Tesla, and Toyota have started producing their own electric vehicles and might go completely electric. In more than 20 countries, governments are encouraging its production in regards to their impact towards energy consumption and the environment with decarbonization and a green economy, marking the start to a new industrialization revolution given the EV popularity.

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