It is estimated that over one billion cars currently traverse the roads and highways of the world today. That number is hardly likely to decrease, but there seems to be a radical change coming regarding how they are powered. It could be said with some confidence now that we are finally stepping into the age of the electric car. Becoming more and more of a common sight, and supported by ever-expanding networks of charging stations, the number of people driving electric cars is on the up. Top car companies such as Audi and General Motors have committed themselves to producing no more gas vehicles by the mid-2030s. But as we move away from the internal combustion engine and the fuel that it requires, a new environmental problem arises – how will the world produce enough batteries to power the ever-increasing numbers of electric cars on our roads?
Certainly, the rise of the rechargeable battery will help. Already, the prevalence of ever-more efficient batteries is increasing. Just like the USB rechargeable batteries that now offer battery users up to a thousand charges before disposal is necessary, the batteries used to power electric vehicles will also need to prioritize efficiency. Innovation in this area has already made great strides, with companies like Pale Blue Earth out of Park City, Utah producing rechargeable smart batteries that have made a real dent in the number of batteries being disposed of every year. The principle is simple and will likely apply to electric car batteries too – make them more efficient and you will need less.
Yet efficient or not, we are not dealing with small rechargeable batteries that can be hooked up to a USB charger with the absolute minimum of effort. When it comes to electric cars, the batteries are (at present) easily the largest car batteries that have ever existed. The reason for this, of course, is simply that these batteries handle 100% of the power that is to keep a car moving to the standards expected by those used to driving fuel engine vehicles. Such batteries contain tens of kilograms of materials that make up the chemical composition of these batteries. Considering that literally millions will have to be produced if electric cars are to be rolled out at the projected rate, there is a real challenge facing the automobile industry.
Ultimately, batteries (especially those of the size needed for a vehicle) are expensive things. This is simply because many of the materials inside a battery are not the most common. The range of metals used, from lithium to zinc and nickel to lead all have to be mined from the earth. And with amount that is expected to be required to power the world’s new generation of electric cars, this entails a lot of mining – not the most environmentally friendly industrial practice.
Beyond making the batteries simply more efficient, recycling will also play a vital role if production is going to be able to answer the demand for electric car batteries. Already, there are a range of government incentives that have funded research into improving the performance of batteries. Nevertheless, we still very much need to reuse materials from old ones.
Recycling batteries is a fairly energy-intensive and complex process (not to say hazardous in the case of lead extraction) but it is already fairly widespread with, for example, over 90% of spent car batteries being recycled in the U.S.
Ultimately, if the new generation of electric vehicles is going to be powered, a combination of technological development and increased recycling efforts will certainly be required.