With the steady rise of electric vehicles (EVs) and growing stigma around non-renewables, many people seem ready to make the switch to EVs — the more eco-friendly option. 

This switch, however, does come at a big cost that many can sometimes overlook: Lithium mining, necessary for EV batteries, can have costly consequences.

According to the Wall Street Journal, a recent consumer survey revealed that 15% more U.S. clients would consider purchasing an EV since the prior year. As such, automakers participating in the electric sector have seen rapid gains, as “sales of plug-in vehicles more than doubled in the first half of 2021.”

The rise of the EV sector — set to be a $2.5 billion market by 2027 — is understandable. EVs produce no emissions and, therefore, can save a consumer roughly $800-1,000 a year in fuel purchases

On the flip side, although EVs are more environmentally friendly in the long run, the lithium mining process isn’t pretty. Compared to the more traditional oil extraction that’s used for combustion engines, many are now questioning which method brings the most benefits with the least amount of trade-offs. 

Mining lithium, mining gas

Bob Wade Autoworld Owner John Wade, asked about what his Harrisonburg clients look for in purchasing cars, put it simply: “Gas, mileage and safety … and reliability.”

This might explain why, despite the growing popularity of EVs, the combustion engine market is still predicted to grow throughout the next decade: $74 million by 2028, according to Global News Wire. Traditional engines have been the staple of the past century, a reliable and cheaper option. 

Yet, though more affordable, such engines are also known for their propensity to pollute. Although many alterations were introduced to reduce emissions — such as the introduction of catalytic converters — the exhaust created from combustion engines is an environmental problem that’s hard to ignore.

Extracting the fuel only adds to the issue. Mining for oil and petroleum involves a seven-step process that includes drilling, fracking and well abandonment or “land restoration.”

Although many attempts and procedures have been put into place to make this operation more efficient and environmentally friendly, fracking has been proven to lead to land destruction and water contamination, which has placed health concerns on the people living in these areas, according to Environmental Health News. 

According to CNN Money, not only is this a messy process but it’s also pricey. When the pandemic took over, some oil-producing countries had to cut back, as production costs overshadowed profit.

As evident by fluctuating gas prices in the past year, this can spell issues for regular car users and a lithium ion based vehicle proves highly advantageous. 

“Manufacturers are investing heavily in electric; I have to assume … that it’s the way we’re headed here in the next decade,” Wade said. “All signs point towards electric.”

Yet, the process of mining lithium also involves consuming millions of gallons of water, along with the movement of thousands of acres of dirt and anything in the way of the mining area.The effects of lithium mining are also quite similar to that of oil fracking. Lithium mining has led to the displacement of small communities and threatens endangered species.

Much like fracking for oil, the regulations placed on lithium mining have increased, as it’s application has increased with the rise of EV’s.

Digging for solutions

With concerns rising about the effects of mining and the consequences of unchecked vehicle emissions, many are starting to search for solutions to help exterminate or contain this problem.

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In the case of fossil fuels, many seem to agree that the best solution is to stop using this resource entirely, since it’s non-renewable and only furthers the ongoing problem of climate change.

Many people find this theory speculative, as utilities like electricity and automobiles continue to use oil every day. However, politicians such as Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-C.A.) went to the extreme of placing an executive order banning of all gasoline-powered vehicles in California by 2035.

Inversely, addressing the shortcomings of EVs, one potential solution that’s still in the works is the replacement of lithium ion in car batteries entirely. 

In the search for this alternative is Masoud Kaveh Baghbadorani, a professor in JMU’s physics department. Currently, he’s involved in the potential development of a “semiconductor-based nano capacitor”: an application that might bypass some of a lithium ion battery’s shortcomings.

“[Lithium ion] reached the scientific threshold,” Kaveh said. “We can’t do much more to make it more efficient.” 

Its inefficiency includes a lacking lifespan, safety risks, high costs, size, stagnant charging and limited supply.

When it comes to EVs, Kaveh explained their lack of market domination as an issue of battery-life and slow charging time, using Tesla as an example: “It takes like 20-25 minutes to charge? Just compare it to pulling over to a gas station and putting gas in less than five minutes — people want to see that.”

While efforts to develop a more robust charging infrastructure are underway, such as within President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill, Kaveh’s research proposes improving capacitor technology instead — at its core, two pieces of metal that could store large amounts of power.

However, “capacitors are either bulky … or can be made in a compact way but cannot store enough energy.” Kaveh said he aims to create something in between. 

If successful, such a capacitor wouldn’t only bypass the environmental and technological concerns of lithium, but could save money. As a capacitor mainly requires pieces of metal, it could be created out of something as common as silicone.

“Just by the design of it … the design is expected to be a lot cheaper” Kaveh said, emphasizing that there are still a lot of unknowns at the moment.

Other ideas have also been proposed by other physicists internationally, such as by using sodium as a replacement to lithium.

Since lithium is quite a lightweight element, it’s hard to copy it with another element and experience the same effectiveness. However, these scientists determined that if sodium atoms were able to be stacked on one another, then a reaction similar to lithium could be obtained.

Whatever outcome occurs, the next steps that can be taken as a society to keep using gasoline is either finding a way to reduce emissions of gasoline vehicles, finding a way to somehow make natural gases reusable or cutting the use of oil entirely. 

Meanwhile, some directions for switching to EVs would be to offer tax write-offs and incentives for switching, along with expanding the knowledge behind them to the consumer.

However, as the demand for EVs rises, the limited supply of lithium could start to deplete. Finding a replacement for lithium-ion batteries could go a long way.

Contact The MBR at breezembr@gmail.com.Will is a junior finance major. Filip is a School of Media Arts and Design and international affairs senior. 

Disclaimer: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I’m not receiving compensation for it, and I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.