Are ebikes good for the environment?
“Lithium-ion batteries have revolutionised our lives since they first entered the market in 1991. They have laid the foundation of a wireless, fossil fuel-free society, and are of the greatest benefit to humankind.”The Nobel prize committee
As regulations for traditional petrol and diesel vehicles change rapidly in the UK and sales figures for electric vehicles are increasing exponentially, the automotive industry is going to change dramatically over the next five to ten years.
Electric vehicles in Europe in 2021 increased by 66% compared to 2022 and appears to be doubling each year.
The main driver for this increase is the damage caused to the environment by the traditional combustion engine, but is producing lithium for ebikes equally damaging?
As our reliance on these electric vehicles continues to grow, so does the demand for lithium. Most of the world’s lithium is mined in Australia, Chile and Argentina, but it’s also found in small quantities all over the world.
E-bikes are becoming increasingly popular as people look for more sustainable ways to get around. However, there is some debate about whether or not they are actually good for the environment.
There has been a significant amount of controversy around the production of electric vehicles and certain reports on the subject being ‘mis-used’ by some critics of EVs.
A report from the German economics professor Hans-Werner Sinn claimed that electric cars were more damaging for the environment than diesel cars.
Many leading experts in the industry have formally called out the report as inaccurate, but it has still led to many using this report to defend the continued use of fossil fuels.
Ebikes compared to other means of transport
If you compare owning an ebike to owning a normal push bike or bicycle, then the ebike would lose the winner of most environmentally friendly choice of transport.
This of course is the same if you compare an ebike to simply walking. Again the ebike loses the battle of climate hero.
However, the debate gets a lot more interesting when you start thinking about if people swapped their main mode of transport for an ebike.
What if instead of using a petrol or diesel car you used a ebike, then then ebike is winning hands down.
An electric car is three times better for the environment compared to a traditional car, so an ebike that uses a lot less metal, lithium and electricity to charge is a massive benefit to the environment over a combustion engine powered car.
This gap will continue to widen as electricity becomes cleaner. If you are charging your ebike using solar or wind power, then the impact on environment becomes minimal.
Ebikes pay back their production based carbon debt
If you were to use an ebike for one year to commute instead of using your standard car, then it pays back it’s ‘carbon debt’ in less than six months. The carbon debt is emissions caused by the production of the bike and the battery.
An ebike is instantly more environmentally friendly than a car or motorbike, but as energy gets cleaner then ebikes become better.
Ebikes have a substantially lower carbon footprint than all petrol and diesel powered vehicles.
If you were to use a non electric car to travel 20 miles everyday in a car, you emit 3,500kg of CO2. If you swapped this journey for an ebike you would produce just 150kg of CO2.
Meaning using an ebike would produce just 4% of the CO2 that you would produce using a car!
What is the lithium mining process?
Step one: Locate Lithium. In order to do this, geologists look for places where there are large deposits of other minerals that also contain high amounts of lithium, such as spodumene or petalite.
Step two: Sampling work is done to determine how much lithium is present, and whether it can be extracted economically and safely from the earth.
Step three: Access mineral ‘veins’ in the earth’s crust that contain high concentrations of lithium. This is done by drilling a series of deep wells that are connected to each other and run along the length of the vein.
Step four: Using water, chemicals and heat to dissolve lithium from the surrounding rock, liquid containing the lithium is pumped up out of the earth and brought to processing facilities on the surface. Here, more chemicals are added in order to refine it into useable forms such as lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide.
Once refined, lithium can be used in EV batteries to store energy.
Although it’s relatively abundant on earth, lithium is a non-renewable resource that can only be extracted from specific parts of the planet – meaning that once these areas are depleted, there may not be enough to meet future demand for this valuable metal.
As a result, it could become increasingly difficult and expensive to mine in the near future as we race to secure our supply of lithium before rising demand outstrips its availability.
More sustainable battery production
Even though the earth has substantial amounts of lithium, it is a non-renewable resource and only found in certain parts of the planet. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. Meaning that future demand may not be able to be met without some intervention.
As explored above, producing lithium for ebike batteries can have a negative environmental impact as it’s extraction from the earth can be damaging and very thirsty for water. Mining for other metals has also come under fire for human rights violations.
However, as technology advances in the recycling of these metals, the production of ebikes takes another huge leap in front of its combustion engine powered friends.
The commercialisation of battery manufacturing and the increase in demand for batteries has also led to improved efficiency in production in terms of less energy per cell required.
Chemicals used in lithium mining
Mining lithium-ion chemicals can be a tricky process, but it’s vitally important for the production of many different types of electronics.
The process starts with extracting lithium from minerals in the ground. This is usually done through a process of evaporation and subsequent Condensation. After the lithium has been extracted, it must be converted into a usable form. This is typically done by combining it with other chemicals to create a compound.
The next step is to purify the compound, which is usually done through a process of distillation. Finally, the purified compound is used to create the battery cells that power electronic devices. Without these crucial steps, our electronic devices would not be able to function.
Lithium-ion batteries are an essential part of modern life, powering everything from cell phones to electric cars, not just ebikes and other EVs. However, as convenient as they are, lithium-ion batteries can be difficult to recycle. The process is complex and expensive, and as a result, many batteries end up in landfill.
This is not only harmful to the environment but also a waste of a valuable resource. For example, the cobalt in a single lithium-ion battery can fetch up to £25 on the open market.
Thankfully, there are a number of companies working on new ways to recycle lithium-ion batteries. One promising approach is to extract the metals from spent batteries and then use them to create new ones. This not only reduces waste but also helps to ensure that valuable resources are reused.
New battery regulation
The European Commission is working on new battery regulation which will enforce a mandatory amount of recycled metals to be used from previous disused batteries.
This will be game changer for ebikes and all electric vehicles as recycling of battery metals focusses on recycling over ‘freshly mined’ lithium.
It will take some time (around ten years) for the first gen electric vehicle batteries to come to the end of their life cycle and for this new regulation to feasible, but this will be the future of ebike batteries and mean that they truly are the most environmentally friendly powered mode of transport available.
Ultimately, Lithium batteries have allowed us to develop long range electric vehicles and store energy from clean sources of power such as solar and wind.
As production efficiency continues to improve, recycling regulation is introduced and first generation lithium is available to recycle, then the world of electric vehicles including ebikes is truly going be a big part in the fight against climate change.