What can make Electric Vehicles (EVs) really clean ?

Manoj Manduva
Nov 21, 2019 · 6 min read

Recently I wrote a blog ‘ Are Electric Cars Really Good for the Environment?’ where I covered how EV (Electric Vehicles) are better compared to ICE ( Internal Combustion Engine) vehicles on road, by evaluating both energy efficiency and emissions per KM. Where EVs are declared a clear winner.

However, the blog ignores the production of the EV and the raw materials involved. I received suggestions to consider even the production of cars to get a holistic picture as it is not entirely sustainable.

Even though I’m aware of certain facts, I felt it is unfair to compare 100 year evolved ICE vehicle technology with a nascent Electric Vehicle technology trying to make some positive impact towards sustainable mobility.

But nevertheless I wanted to explore

‘What can make Electric Vehicles really clean ?’

I decided to dig deeper into what goes in the making of an EV and see If I can make sense to an average reader.

The three important parts of an EV are :

  1. Motor
  2. Battery
  3. Rest of the Body ( we can ignore this for the moment because it is almost same as a conventional ICE vehicle with fewer moving parts )

Motors

The motor used in the Electric Vehicles still works on the the traditional AC Motor principle. However the modern electric motor advances have resulted from developments and refinements in magnetic materials, integrated circuits, power electronic switching devices, computer modeling and simulation, and manufacturing technology, rather than by fundamental changes in operation and control principles.

Some of the popular motors used in Electric Vehicles are :

  1. Three-phase, AC induction motor ( 310 kW) It is a rear-mounted electric motor with copper rotor. ( used by Tesla S model )
  2. Synchronous electric motor with 80 kW driving the front wheel ( used by Nissan Leaf )
  3. Permanent Magnet Synchronous Motor (PMSM) uses permanent magnets embedded in the steel rotor to create a constant magnetic field. ( used by Tesla Model 3, Chevy Bolt, Chevy volt )
Permanent Magnet Synchronous Motor — Source (https://en.engineering-solutions.ru/motorcontrol/pmsm/)

The dramatic improvements in permanent magnet materials and power electronic devices over the last two decades have led to the development of brushless permanent magnet motors that offer significant improvements in power density, efficiency, and noise/vibration reduction.

The reason permanent-magnet motors are used is that their efficiency is almost always higher in the range and can get more torque for a given supply of current.

The key component of the motors are the :

Permanent Magnets

Permanent magnet synchronous motors contain rotors, which are made from rare earth materials such as Neodymium and Dysprosium.

Alloys of Neodymium magnet also known as Neo Magnet or NIB or NdFeB with iron and boron are four to five times as strong by weight as permanent magnets made from any other material. That’s one reason rare-earth magnets are found in nearly every hybrid and electric car on the road.

The motor of Toyota’s Prius, for example, uses about a kilogram of rare earths. Offshore wind turbines can require hundreds of kilograms each.

Rare-earth metals, despite the name, are relatively abundant in Earth’s crust.

The 16 naturally occurring rare earths are usually found mixed together in deposits that often contain radioactive elements as well — and separating the metals requires costly processes that produce a stew of toxic pollutants.

These chemical elements are mainly mined in China under bad working conditions.

This is one major downside of the Permanent Magnet based Motors.

A rare earth mining worker in Jiagnxi province in China. Source: Reuters

Moreover the use of rare earths results in vast environmental impacts, as these materials have to be separated from other minerals with great efforts. During this process residues occur in form of acids or even radioactive materials, which get back into our environmental cycle carried by the groundwater leading to long-term consequences.

You can read more about it here.

At the moment recycling of the rare earths is quite problematic, since there does not exist a standardized technology for the recycling process. This is the reason why recycling of rare earths is really costy and mostly unusual within the industry.

China owns 80% shares of rare earths within the world market leading to a price explosion of resources.

The foul waters of the tailings pond contain all sorts of toxic chemicals, but also radioactive elements such as thorium which, if ingested, cause cancers of the pancreas and lungs, and leukaemia.

Polluted water body in China near the Rare Earth treatment plant. Source: www.mining-technology.com

Teams around the world are working to develope highly efficient electric motors for the automotive industry without the need for rare earths.

The researchers are also working on ways to manufacture rare-earth magnets more efficiently.

Toyota says it has invented a new magnet for high-energy applications like electric motors that uses a fraction of the amount of neodymium (a rare-earth element) of a standard iron, boron, neodymium (NdFeB) magnet.

Batteries

There are atleast 6 to 7 types of Lithium Ion batteries however only 2 or 3 types are suitable for Electric Vehicle applications.

One of the important parameter widely used battery in EVs is ‘Specific Energy’. It is the capacity of the battery to deliver the energy.

Specific energy, or gravimetric energy density, defines battery capacity in weight (Wh/kg). Products requiring long runtimes at moderate load are optimized for high specific energy

One way reaserchers found to improve the battery capacity is by adding metal oxides to the cathode, by which the physical structure of the molecules change to accommodate more flow of ions.

Some of popular batteries used in Electric Vehicles (EVs) based on the are

  1. NCA ( Lithium Nickel Cobalt Aluminum Oxide )
  2. NMC ( Lithium Nickel Manganese Cobalt Oxide )

Cobalt

Both the above batteries use Cobalt as an additive even though is a bit expensive but brings a lot more stability to the battery. Cobalt is globally recognised as ‘critical’ and is often referred to as a technology enabling metal due to its unique properties.

Cobalt is a byproduct of the production of other metals like nickel and copper, but it also exists in the earth’s crust on its own, in mines primarily in the Democratic Republic of the Congo of about 50% of world’s reserves.

A long history of rights violations, including child mining, associated with production in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Poor working conditions at Cobalt mining site in Democratic Republic of Congo. Source : wired

Cobalt demand for lithium-ion batteries is expected to double by 2025

Also there are many health hazards associated with high cobalt exposure to the mining workers.

Many companies including mobile phone manufacturers are declaring and tracking down the supply chain to ensure fair trade sourcing of raw materials. Many automakers are investing in developing batteries which use less or no Cobalt using alternatives like Manganese and Iron based cathodes.

So in conclusion, ‘What can make an EV really clean? ’

New Materials.

Those which replace Rare Earths like Neodymium from the permanent magnet motors and Cobalt from the cathodes of the lithium ion batteries.

Companies are making progress towards developing new motors and batteries without the use of Neodymium and Cobalt making EVs much cleaner and efficient.

References :

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-05752-3

https://www.wired.co.uk/article/lithium-batteries-environment-impact

https://www.wired.com/story/alternatives-to-cobalt-the-blood-diamond-of-batteries/

http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150402-the-worst-place-on-earth

https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/11-lithium-ion-battery-makers-that-dont-need-cobalt

Manoj Manduva

Written by

Product designer — Electric Mobility

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