Engineering 101

When Green is Black

by Jon Gabay, engineer

We are so manipulated in our society. Others dictate the technologies we will use and depend on without regard to ramifications. Poor planning and hip-shot reactions lead to wasted time and money, and the goals that are supposed to motivate people often have the opposite effect.

Take, for example, the push toward electric vehicles. We can all agree that it’s a good idea to eliminate toxins spewing into our atmosphere, and gas-guzzling cars seem like a good place to start. We understand that the amount of greenhouse gasses we put into the atmosphere directly correlates to global temperatures. We are seeing some of these effects now. Once the global feedback mechanisms disappear, like ice caps reflecting heat back out to space, we will see a rapid increase in temperatures, storm and flood severity, and sea level rise.

The idea of electric cars is potentially a good one, but the choice and implementation of the technology leave a lot to be desired. And, once again, we, the people, will not have a choice, especially as the government is passing legislation to make internal combustion engines illegal soon.

Let’s start with battery technology. Manufacturers choose lithium-ion batteries because they have a high energy density and are rechargeable. From the beginning, a bad idea. While lithium-ion batteries do not emit carbon dioxide themselves, lithium mining and production are worse for the climate than the production of fossil fuels. In addition, mining lithium results in loss of biodiversity, damage to ecosystems, and soil degradation.

Second, let’s look at the use of lithium-ion batteries in electric cars. Lithium-ion battery combustion is still a problem. The issue is called thermal runaway, a phenomenon in which the lithium-ion cell uncontrollably heats itself, leading to explosions and fires. Many states don’t want owners of electric vehicles to park their cars in garages because of the fire risk. What’s more, electric vehicle car crashes pose threats to passengers and first responders. And, when lithium-ion batteries catch fire, they burn much hotter requiring more water or extinguishing chemicals to put out.

Third, the high temperatures required to reclaim lithium ions which emit hydrogen cyanide, cobalt, nickel, and manganese. These highly toxic compounds go into the air and water and harm humans, plants, and animals.

Fourth, replacing a lithium-ion battery pack for an electric vehicle can be exorbitant. Depending on the make and model, a 62 kWh battery can cost anywhere from $8,500 – $9,500 U.S., and the battery packs in a Tesla can cost from $13,000 – $20,000 U.S. You can find videos online showing people burning their Teslas rather than paying the high battery replacement price. This isn’t just a Tesla problem, either. Ford lists its Mach-E battery at $25,319 U.S.

Fifth, the lithium we depend on for electric vehicles may need to be imported, sometimes from unfriendly nations, particularly as global alliances are shifting. Most lithium comes from Australia, Argentina, and Bolivia. A Chinese Black Rock-funded company Ganfeng supplies much of the element for Tesla.

Lithium isn’t the only element we need from unfriendly nations when making electric vehicles. Neodymium used in the motors comes from China, Russia, Brazil, India, and Afghanistan, to name a few.

So what are the alternatives? While lead-acid batteries have been the mainstay for starting fossil fuel vehicles, they are heavier, larger, and don’t have the same energy density as lithium-ion batteries. But, they are 90% – 95% completely recyclable. Also, there are many promising technologies that the automotive industry has overlooked because of minor issues. Many of which have been solved.

One such technology is air batteries. The problem with air batteries is the anodes and cathodes oxidize (rust) and cause performance degradation. But iron-based air batteries can reverse that rust when

Don’t give up on internal combustion engines. Engine makers like Cummins (a diesel maker), and car companies like Honda, Hyundai, Toyota,  and BMW, to name a few, have demonstrated and introduced fuel-cell-based electric vehicles and internal combustion engines which use hydrogen. Water comes from the exhaust pipe, not carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide.

The last major point I want to make is: where will we get the energy to produce hydrogen or to charge electric cars? We use coal-fired power plants as a significant source of electricity. Coal is the dirtiest to mine, burn, and is worse for the environment than gasoline or diesel. I would like to see massive solar farms that generate hydrogen for use as an automotive fuel and a fuel for power plants.

There are many other issues we can discuss, like the push towards electric vehicles, then the tripling in the price of electricity for consumers, or not allowing owners of electric vehicles to charge their cars at night. Or the fact that our electric grid can’t even handle the power requirements for the 2,32 million electric automobiles sold in the U.S. as of December 21st.

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