Energy Conservation

What are the environmental impacts of electric car batteries?
Answered by Science Channel
  • Science Channel

    Science Channel

  1. Electric cars are great because they don't pollute as they run. But their batteries still have to be recharged, which is usually accomplished by plugging into a fossil-fuel-burning grid. So even though the batteries -- or the engine's power source -- don't add to air pollution, charging them does to some extent.

    Still, when electric car batteries die, they are nearly 100 percent recyclable, so waste isn't much of an issue when compared with conventional batteries. There are many initiatives under way to find useful purposes for electric car batteries after their charge-recharge lives are over. One of these, partially funded by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, is a partnership between universities and local industries to use lithium-ion batteries to store power for community power grids. The batteries may not have enough power left in them to keep an electric car going, but they can serve other purposes [source: NREL].

    The problem of creating affordable and effective batteries to power electric vehicles has been one of the barriers to having roads full of electric vehicles instead of fuel burners. The lithium-ion is an improvement over traditional batteries, such as the ones we use to power flashlights, but there still is a long way to go before any of our electric cars can go a long way on today's battery technology. Newer batteries can store more power than past ones, so technology is improving. The clever folks at MIT have come up with a new lightweight battery that has solid particles suspended in liquid. The black liquid is refillable, which would mean a driver could theoretically recharge the battery at a gas station that included a pump with the battery "goo" [source: Jervey].

    Those who support electric vehicles also point out that even though much of the electricity that recharges the cars comes from fossil fuels, not all of it does. As alternative sources work their way into community power grids, electricity also should have less environmental impact. An April 2011 study in Norway that looked at the environmental impact of three battery types showed that nickel-metal hydride batteries impacted the environment the most, followed by nickel cobalt manganese lithium-ion batteries and then by iron phosphate lithium-ion batteries. The researchers covered impact issues such as greenhouse gas emissions, freshwater toxicity and human toxicity -- touching on 11 types of environmental impacts involved in manufacturing, shipping and life cycles of the batteries. Manufacturing was a large part of greenhouse gas emissions, as was energy capacity [source: Science Daily].  

    A similar study in January 2011 in Switzerland compared an electric car to an economical gas-powered vehicle. Even when assuming that the electricity for the lithium-ion battery came entirely from coal power, the electric car won after converting cradle-to-grave environmental impact to miles per gallon (about 45 mpg). If the electric power were to come from entirely renewable energy, the results would be 117 mpg [source: Price].

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