Driving a Hybrid Vehicle? – How Real People Are Dying for Your Prius

Driving a Hybrid Vehicle? – How Real People Are Dying for Your Prius

Are you driving a hybrid vehicle? 10 years ago, Prius ownership was as much about making a statement as saving a few bucks on gas. Now, as fuel prices hover around $3.75 per gallon (except in the northwest, where drivers are shelling out closer to $4.25), owning a Prius, or any other hybrid, just makes plain good economic sense.

It is true though that although Toyota could easily make their segment leading Prius nearly indistinguishable from any garden variety small car,

Toyota-Prius-C-2012 Hybrid

Toyota’s affordable, new for 2012 Prius-C hybrid brings the economic benefits of hybrid motoring to even more people, and just in time, too as fuel prices are near record highs. Wha price are others paying for our obsession with fuel saving, though?

they have, wisely as it tuns out, chosen not to. After all, a 2007 survey revealed that the number one reason Prius owners made their vehicle choice was not the stellar fuel economy, the money saved, or anything about the car’s driving dynamics or ergonomics, but rather “What it says about me.”

Obviously, if you’re choosing a car primarily to make a statement, rather than for any practical reason you’re one of principle. A Honda Civic hybrid, while in some ways a better car than a Prius, is virtually identical to the garden variety Civic that Honda sells by the thousands. Ditto the Ford Fusion; a great car, but not much of a statement piece, if that’s what you really care about. It’s off to the Toyota dealership, then.

Do These People Really Care About MPG, Really? (or is all about appearances)

As with many things, however there  are greater forces at work here, if one chooses to dig deeper. Ironically, many of those Prius buyers, who would never dream of failing to drop a scrap of aluminum foil in the recycling bin, are blissfully ignorant of the true cost imposed by their fuel sipping hybrid vehicles.  For them, it’s all about the latest bogeyman, carbon emissions, and the resultant (we’re told) climate change. The fact they’re saving a few scheckles on gasoline is but a bonus.

The question is then, what is the true environmental cost of a hybrid vehicle, and who’s paying it? The environment casts associated with a hybrid are derived from the same technology that enables it to achieve such remarkable fuel economy; the batteries. Batteries, you see, are made from some pretty nasty stuff. The Prius electric motor is also home to a kilo of the rare earth material neodymium, also used in the car’s stereo speakers, but in much smaller quantities.

Where and how said nasty stuff is extracted from the ground, and what happens with it when it’s no longer useful as an energy storage unit for their regenerative braking system, somehow escapes consideration from many of these self-professed environmental statement makers.

Unfortunately,thousands of people around the world haven’t the luxury of ignoring such things. They are directly impacted by them.

Lanthanum, used to make the Prius’ nickle metal hydride batteries, is moderately toxic and should be handled  carefully. Nickle, as the battery’s name suggests, makes up the majority of the Prius Ni-MH batteries.  Nickel is not something you’d want to roll around in, as it Toyota asserts however, that properly recycled, the batteries pose no environmental hazard. That’s fine after the Prius battery pack has fired off it’s last electron, but what about before? Where does lanthanum come from and how environmentally friendly is it to extract from the ground?

Although the material exists in quantity in the U.S., it is currently sourced almost entirely from China. The last major U.S. lanthanum production facility, the Mountain Pass, CA mine, closed in 2002, due to price pressure from Chinese suppliers and environmental concerns. Ironically, shifting production from the U.S. to China will do little to change the world wide demand for such materials, or clean the environment, as Chinese environmental regulations are typically less restrictive than those in the U.S.

Increasing domestic demand for the metal in China may soon re-energize U.S. Production, because the Chinese will be hard pressed to mine enough for their own use, let alone supplying Panasonic EV Energy Corp, battery manufacturer for the Prius. In fact, mining concern Molycorp has already reopened the mine and is processing leftovers there, with plans to resume production by Q3 of this year.

The Prius’ Other Shoe

Of greater concern form an environmental and social cost standpoint is lithium (Atomic symbol – Li), used in the next generation of hybrid car batteries. Lithium ion batteries are already used in the Chevy Volt, Mercedes S-class hybrid, Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and Toyota’s own plug-in hybrid Prius version. Some form of lithium batteries will likely be used in all new hybrids going forward in the near future, especially as research discovers new ways to make them more cost effective and efficient.

They are attractive to auto manufacturer due to their higher energy density, meaning they can be lighter and more compact for a given power output. This leaves more room for other important things a typical vehicle must carry, such as people. In addition, weight is the enemy of good fuel mileage figures, so a lighter batter pack is a boon to fuel economy figures.

Now for the bad news. Lithium is not found just affordably laying around  in very many places. As demand rises, not only due to hybrid and electric vehicles, but mobile electronics and medical device use, there is legitimate concern that it will outstrip supply. Outstrip is also a great description for what mining companies will be doing to the few areas fortunate enough to have significant affordable quantities of the material.

Please Pass the (Lithium) Salt

That’s what some Bolivians may well be wishing soon. The home to the world’s largest lithium deposits is southern Bolivia’s Salar De Uyuni salt flats, a dizzying expanse of white stretching seemingly to the ends of the earth. In reality, the vast salt flat is 5,000 sq miles, or about 108 times the size of Utah’s famed Bonneville Salt Flats.

The Bolivean Salar_Uyuni salt flats, a center of controversy over litium extraction.

Soon, the world may be even more aware of the Bolivian variety. This, as the world’s thirst for lithium grows, in an attempt to build hundreds of millions of electronic devices, and hundreds of thousands of electric and hybrid autos each year.

The average hybrid or electric car uses substantial quantities of the metal. For example, the Chevy Volt’s lithium battery pack tips the scales at 400lbs. While only a small percentage of that mass is lithium metal itself, there are still significant quantities in each Volt Chevy rolls out the door. The dear, departed Tesla Roadster’s Li-Ion battery pack, essentially containing over 6,000 of the same cells used to make laptop batteries (which normally contain 6 – 9 cells), was nearer to 950 lbs.

It’s easy to see that as hybrids change to Li-ion battery packs from Ni-MH units, and more purely electric vehicles are sold, lithium demand will surge. There are few choices to feed that demand, outside of the concentrations in South America. While extracting the metal will prove an economic stimulus to the Bolivians rivaling the Texas oil boom of the last century, the environmental consequences could well be severe.

As do-gooder environmentalists in the U.S. And Europe happily tout the “clean” virtues of their Leaves and Prius grocery getters, there will be a different picture being painted in the southern hemisphere. The economic benefits to Bloivia will be impossible to ignore, and mining will move forward. Experts predict the demand for lithium will increase 1,000% in the next decade, just to feed the increased demand for vehicle’s electric power train components. That says nothing of the world’s insatiable gadget thirst, which is sure to only keep growing, fueling lithium demand even more.

So, how will the world’s lithium hunger affect the Bolivians and their environment, besides causing them drive around in huge Cadillacs with steer horns on the hood? The U.S. Government estimates roughly 5.9 billion tons of the yellowish metal are hidden in the Bolivian salt flats, with other estimates  ranging as high as 9 billion. A staggering amount, to be sure. To put things in perspective, Chile, the current lithium production leader, has but 3 billion tons in proven reserves.

Bond, James Bond

What cost to get at all of this newly precious metal? Movie goers who watched the Bond film Quantum of Solace have a good idea. The problem is that lithium extraction requires water, and lots of it. Leave aside for a moment (don’t worry, we’ll get back to it) the strip mining like impact of extraction operations on the  region’s landscape, the real problems likely lie with the vast amounts of H2O necessary to get all the lithium out an ready for use.

In the near term political issues may well stem the extraction process. Not of the environmental variety, the political objections come form the Bolivian government, who retain tight control over the country’s resources. A few years ago, Bolivia nationalized the nation’s oil and gas industry, and gave foreign companies the boot, claiming rampant exploitation.

Welcome to My Villa

Unfortunately for the Bolivian people, what all too often happens in these situations is that the exploitation simply shifts from foreign companies exploiting the local people, to the national government exploiting the local people. Someone typically lives high on the hog, but it’s rarely the locals.

Once political impediments are swept aside and mining proceeds, the Bolivians will face their next hurdle. What’s going to happen to their water if large scale lithium extraction begins. For an answer to that, they can simply ask the Chileans. Forbes Magazine once called Chile the “Saudi Arabia of Lithium” due the country’s vast lithium reserves and the metal’s potential to be the primary material fueling our motoring industry in the future.

Chile, like Bolivia, has firm political restrictions in place regarding lithium extraction. These, however, have little to do with the environmental concerns surrounding the process, which is not really mining at all. Rather than being dug from the ground as in the past, the metal is contained in a brine solution that is pumped to the surface, then allowed to sit in the sun and evaporate, leaving behind a concentrated solution.

Chile is about to streamline the political process for extraction, opening the door to more large scale production, in an attempt to keep others, like their Bolivian neighbors, at bay as the market heats up. The country is due to auction lithium permits and award it’s first contracts by the end of 2012.

What does the exploding interest in Lithium mean for the average people in those South American countries fortunate enough to enjoy significant reserves?

What will the environmental cost be for the regions that feed the world’s drivers, trying to avoid spending hundreds of dollars each month for the privilege of private transportation?

1) The brine extraction method, while using significant amounts of water, causes fewer long-term environmental effects than extraction by mining.

2) The environmental cost of the batteries’ lithium is but a small part of the batteries’ total environmental impact. According to Stanford University, “the lithium extraction accounts for less than 3 percent of the battery’s entire environmental burden” of a lithium-ion battery. This is primarily due to the fact that the lithium carbonate used in the battery accounts for a very small part of the battery itself. Getting the battery’s copper and aluminum are much more environmentally damaging, accounting for more than half of the unit’s environmental impact.

3) According to Jean-Francois Meilleur, VP of the Canadian lithium mining concern Critical Elements (Canada is poised to become a major word player in lithium supply as well.),  claims that there will be minimal long term environmental impact from his company’s mining process, saying in an interview in April, 2012  “…..at the end of the mine life and processing we will revamp and rebuild the site and we are putting capital every year and a big amount of capital to make sure that we will recondition the environmental footprint, to make it nice and clean and that is a law in Quebec. ”

4) Despite the assurances that lithium extraction will have minimum long term impacts, the short term problems alone can be significant, according to critics. Naturally, the mining companies are not among these. Local residents are, however. In March of this year, representatives of 33 native communities in Argentina, another South American with large brine lithium reserves actually filed a lawsuit in the country’s supreme court, demanding they be included in any decision making process that affects their home land, and given right of first refusal when deciding on any lithium extraction.

5) The largest problem is that the regions’ using brine water lithium extraction can easily contaminate significant quantities of fresh water. In some cases, nearly the entire supply is contaminated.This poses a huge problem for local residents. Leaving them with little naturally occurring fresh water. This is compounded by the fact that  fresh water is fairly rare in the arid regions.

More on the lightweight metal that stores energy for our hybrid vehicles and electric cars.

1) Lithium is currently produced from the salt flats in Bolivia and Chile due to the relative extraction ease and affordability. If costs rise, other sources would become viable again, and the metal exists virtually everywhere, even in seawater.

2) Lithium is recycled, unlike oil, and as more car batteries are produced, the recycle-ready supply will grow as well. The recycling is strongly encouraged (read, monetarily incentivised) in developed countries because simply disposing of the material could pose an environmental problem.

Once again, a story that seems simple to people bent on saving the environment and a few dollars on gasoline, is much more complex. There are tremendous political and environmental concerns facing people on the other end of the hybrids’ battery packs.

Considering them when deciding on buying a hybrid vs. a fuel saving, traditionally-powered vehicle will certainly not make the decision for most people, but few stop to think about what happens to those 10,000 miles away as they silently glide from their driveways on their way to Whole Foods.

What do you think? Do you own a hybrid or electric vehicle? Are you considering one, or would you in the future?

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