Are Zinc Batteries the Future of Electric Cars?
As human beings evolve and the planet degenerates, the move to reduce dependence on fossil fuels for every day commute has become a desideratum. Utlilisation of petrol and diesel for transport will soon become a myth as more and more countries around the world opt for cleaner fuels with no harm to the environment.
The UK and France have decided to outlaw combustion engines by the year 2040 while China is analysing the consequences of such a move.
The popular Swedish car manufacturer, Volvo is going to launch cars that are either completely or partially Electric from 2019 onwards. This is considered to be the first real challenge to Tesla since Volvo already sells in over 140 countries. In order to keep the vehicles charged, carmakers BMW, Daimler and Volkswagen have teamed up with the Ford to form a joint venture and build 400 charging stations across Europe. A network of that magnitude would make it convenient for current as well as future electric car owners.
However, there is a dark side to this reform that we’ll be unfolding below.
The process of manufacturing an electric vehicle will have remarkable impact on the environment due to the materials required to create Batteries and related hardware. It could be higher than the impacts from manufacturing process of combustion vehicles.
A recent study done by Norwegian scientists reveals that electric vehicles could have a higher impact on global warming and climate change as compared to conventional cars in a few circumstances. Since electricity in most parts of the world is derived from fossil fuels, EVs can only be as green as the power that they operate on. Though electric vehicles have the potential to lead the role of sustainable transport in the coming era, its success from an environmental perspective depends largely on the source of electricity used to power them.
The sudden rise in demand for EVs will lead to a shortage of key mineral components, especially cobalt, and shortage of sources or lack of access to those would lead to restriction of desired supply.
Photo Credit: http://futureofenergy.web.unc.edu/
Batteries for EVs will also be made out of lithium-ion, just like the batteries used to power mobile phones, laptops etc. Batteries with larger capacities have to be developed for EVs and will be expected to last for a minimum of 150,000 miles or a period of 10 years. This leads to scarcity of minerals required to build batteries, especially large volumes of lithium, cobalt and nickel. EV manufacturers have to deal with dependence on the mining sector and as the demand rises, those minerals are likely to become pricier and rarer.
To meet the rise in demand for raw materials to manufacture electric vehicles, mining companies are buckling up to sources such as Australia and Chile for lithium, Congo for cobalt and Canada, Indonesia, Russia, Philippines etc. for nickel. Out of them, Philippines has already shut down 17 nickel mines this year due to environmental concerns.
Besides procurement of rare earth minerals, the carbon footprint of huge plants required for processing them into parts for EVs is something to be concerned about.
Major battery manufacturers Samsung SDI and LG Chem have developed new power packs using more nickel and less cobalt in order to evade the crisis while other battery makers are developing batteries using alternative materials. The US Naval Research Laboratory has signed an agreement with EnZinc, a California-based firm to produce nickel-Zinc batteries for use in EVs. According to the co-founder of EnZinc, Michael Burz, the zinc-based battery technology will be ready to hit the market in about 2 years.
Lithium-ion batteries include several other materials like magnesium, cadmium, manganese and cobalt oxide. Since they use a flammable electrolyte, they are riskier than lead-acid batteries. EnZinc solves this issue by incorporating metals such as zinc and nickel, which are less volatile and plentifully available in US, China, Australia and Peru. Since the US alone produces over 900,000 tonnes of zinc annually out of the Red Dog Mine in Alaska, it’ll be much easier for EnZinc to procure a huge amount of zinc to manufacture batteries without the need to mine rare earth minerals.
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