How problematic is mineral mining for electric cars? 

The ground is being peeled back in Chile's deserts, Australia's outback, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo's plains to discover the minerals needed to fuel the world's demand for electric vehicles. Opponents of the shift away from fossil fuels frequently point to the scars inflicted on the land by the search for battery materials. 

However, in our EV mythbusters series, we examine some of the most popular objections of electric vehicles, highlighting the myths, truths, and grey areas. The first in our series questioned if we should be more concerned about electric car fires and whether electric cars had a mining problem. 

Mineral demand for hefty batteries will skyrocket. According to the International Energy Agency, electric automobiles use 173kg more minerals like lithium, nickel, and copper than gasoline cars (ignoring steel and aluminum). Benchmark Mineral Intelligence predicts that global demand for lithium, the primary battery metal, will treble to 3 million tonnes by 2030, far outstripping supply.  

However, after oil is factored in, the mineral consumption for electric vehicles is significantly lower than that of gasoline and diesel. According to Transport & Environment (T&E), a Brussels-based think tank, a petrol car will consume an average of 17,000 gallons of oil throughout its lifetime, or approximately 12.5 tonnes. 

Most complaints about the mineral consumption of electric vehicles overlook a critical point: the majority of battery materials used in cars are likely to be recycled. When opposed to fossil fuels, which disappear invisibly but heat the globe, this will substantially reduce the amount of waste material.  

"The real thing people forget is that once it has been mined, you will end up being able to reuse 80-90% of the metals," said David Bott, the Society of Chemical Industry's head of innovation. You do not need to return to the planet to steal more minerals." 

According to T&E data, after recycling, battery material waste from an electric car will be around the size of a football, or 30kg, by 2030. This amount excludes any fossil fuels used to generate power, implying that the true real-life mineral toll will be higher than 30kg until countries have totally decarbonised their electrical infrastructures. 

"By 2030, we will need around 30 million tonnes of critical minerals [for batteries]," said Julia Poliscanova, T&E's senior director for vehicles and e-mobility. It's significant, but in comparison, we utilized 15 billion tonnes of fossil fuels in one year. 

According to Auke Hoekstra, an energy transition researcher at Eindhoven University of Technology, mining takes up around 0.1% of the Earth's livable area, but battery minerals take up less than 0.01%. According to the US Geological Survey, this still comprises massive volumes of material, including 130,000 tonnes of lithium.  

" However, this is eclipsed by other materials: in 2022, 2.6 billion tonnes of iron ore and 4.4 billion tonnes of oil were mined for steel. "The sheer amount of material we need to get out of the ground is bigger and everlasting," Hoekstra said of fossil fuels. "At least with batteries you have a chance of making it circular." 

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