The origin of the electricity and the production conditions of the battery are the two decisive factors in the question of the sustainability of electric vehicles. We wanted to know what the eco-balance of electric cars really looks like and asked the Fraunhofer Institute for Transportation and Infrastructure Systems IVI.
We talk to Dipl.-Ing. Claudius Jehle. He has been head of the "Electrical Storage Technology" group at the Fraunhofer IVI for 4 years and is an expert in the field of battery systems. He is responsible for the development of battery and vehicle diagnostic systems, especially in the commercial vehicle sector. His research thus continues a long tradition of the institute.
THE BATTERY: THE ONLY AND MOST IMPORTANT WEARING PART
The diagnosis of battery systems is so important because the energy storage unit is the last remaining wearing part of an electric car - and by far the largest. He sums up why this is so as follows: "Apart from the tyres, there are no oil changes, there is no exhaust system and braking is largely done by the engine itself. In contrast, the battery loses capacity over time and thus wears out. At the same time, it is the most expensive single component of the vehicle, accounting for 30 to 40 percent of the purchase price."
All this is reason enough to get involved in the development of systems for wear diagnosis. But Jehle is not only familiar with the end of a battery's life. Its production also plays a role in his research activities and thus the eco-balance of electric cars. On the electric car side, 2 factors are relevant: Where does the electricity come from and how "green" is the battery.
Life cycle assessment of electric car: POWER AND BATTERY the determining factors
"When it comes to electricity, the calculation is relatively simple. If you charge your electric car with green electricity, then the electric car also drives green. On the other hand, if you use coal or nuclear power, you are only doing something for your conscience at first glance. When it comes to the battery, the origin of the individual elements must be considered above all. For it is a chemical system consisting of raw materials such as cobalt, lithium, nickel or manganese. Nickel and manganese are less problematic to extract. Lithium, on the other hand, is extracted under difficult conditions in partly unstable countries. However, this could change in the future. Significant deposits have been discovered in Saxony and efforts are being made to exploit this potential. Cobalt, on the other hand, is largely extracted from ore deposits in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The fact that it occurs almost exclusively there is a freak of nature. In addition, it is mined under highly questionable conditions," says Claudius Jehle, describing the factors that flow into the consideration of the life cycle assessment of electric cars.
BACKGROUND DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO
The Democratic Republic of Congo is the second largest state in Africa. It has a natural environment rich in resources. Besides timber, hydropower and fertile soils, mineral resources are of great importance. Nevertheless, Congo is a poor country. Characterised by mining, large parts of the population live below the poverty line. To this day, the country is dominated by exploitation and violence. The country is economically in ruins and the law of the strongest still prevails.
IT'S THE WAY YOU USE RESOURCES THAT COUNTS
For the life cycle assessment of electric cars, this means that the problem is not the CO2 generated during production, but the extraction of raw materials. Batteries are therefore not ecologically sound in principle. "Everything has its price," Jehle sums it up. Reason enough to pay more attention to the recovery of the raw materials used. Because batteries are not the only solution, but they are an important part of it. This raises the question of how to deal with old and defective batteries. For Claudius Jehle, one thing is certain: battery recycling is both a challenge and an opportunity. He also knows the current and future approaches for the optimal use of the necessary resources:
"The disposal of batteries will play a decisive role. Saxony in particular is already very well positioned in this respect on the part of industry. The success of this process is a decisive part of the resource cycle. However, implementation is only just beginning, so it is not yet possible to say how high the recyclable proportion will be."
COMPARISONS ARE POSSIBLE IF THE FRAMEWORK IS RIGHT
If we now look at the overall life cycle assessment of electric cars, the comparison with conventional combustion engines comes into focus. After all, the environmental impact of an alternative drive system is supposed to be lower. But can diesel and petrol engines be compared with electric cars at all, or are we comparing apples and oranges?
"No, it's not apples and oranges. You can compare the different drives quite well. The only question is where the balance limit is, i.e. at what distance do you start? Does one include the impact of cobalt mining in the calculation? The same with the combustion engine: does one include the origin and production of the steel? Do you look at where the alloys come from?" For Jehle, these are points that should be taken into consideration when looking at the life cycle assessment.
THE SCENARIO OF THE JOURNEY IS ALSO CRUCIAL
He is convinced that there will not be one solution in the future. Unlike in the past, many different drive variants and combinations will therefore exist side by side. Each drive will be suitable for some scenarios and some will not. He therefore sees electromobility as an opportunity, especially for inner-city traffic.
"In addition to this, the intended use is one of the important influencing factors. Drive systems based on fossil fuels or hydrogen will be used for medium and long distances (over 200 km). Battery-electric drives, on the other hand, are primarily suitable for short distances and can fully exploit their potential there. At the same time, hybrid systems will also gain in importance, at least as a bridging technology," Jehle sums up.
The eco-balance of electric cars will continue to improve in the future. With optimised use of resources and a greater proportion of recycled raw materials, batteries can be produced more sustainably. In addition, batteries are also getting better and better. Colleagues of Claudius Jehle are researching new battery technologies at other Fraunhofer Institutes in Dresden. This can save manufacturing costs and make toxic production materials superfluous. Nevertheless, change takes time. "You can't expect everything to be developed already," Claudius Jehle points out. Because switching is a process and the beginning has been made.
If you are more interested in the topic of sustainability in electric mobility, take a look at our article on the topic of solar carports!