Smoke and Mirrors: Why the World’s Rush to Electric Vehicles Hides a Dirty Secret

Smoke and Mirrors: Why the World’s Rush to Electric Vehicles Hides a Dirty Secret

Are we swapping one environmental crisis for another? If we really want to tackle the climate and fuel emergencies, Roy Henderson, CEO of Green Cell Technologies, believes biofuels beat lithium-ion batteries right now.

In August 1893, with hope and trepidation, Rudolf Diesel fired up the new engine he’d invented. The test wasn’t a success, and another four years of development were needed before Diesel could unveil his 25hp single-cylinder motor and pronounce it a significant improvement on the steam engine. It ran on oil extracted from peanuts.

Nearly 130 years later, oil from crops still fuels motors. But most combustion engines run on fossil oil pumped from deep underground, then transported vast distances in pipelines and ships before being refined.

One of the ironies of the fossil fuel age is that while diesel started its commercial life as a carbon-neutral fuel, it went on to become one of the leading contributors to the climate catastrophe. As recently as 2021, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), 26 percent of transport-related CO2 emissions in the United States came from diesel. Meanwhile, biofuels produced from living materials such as rapeseed, soybeans and sugarcane fall into such a small category of petroleum products that the EIA counts them alongside substances such as asphalt, lubricants and kerosene when it publishes consumption data.

Electric Vehicles are not New

There are good reasons for biofuels’ failure to make a dent in the energy market, which we’ll come back to. But first, another quick visit to the end of the 19th century when one in three cars in the U.S. ran on electricity. Recognizing the potential for further growth, the prolific inventor Thomas Edison patented a nickel-iron rechargeable battery and later he even worked with Henry Ford on ideas for a low-cost electric car.

Unfortunately for Edison, the battery was one of his failures due to its unreliability, and his endeavors coincided with massive early-20th century oil discoveries in Texas, which meant the U.S. had plentiful cheap fuel for decades to come. The fact that Ford’s petroleum-powered Model T was cheap didn’t help, and by 1935 electric cars had all but vanished from the roads.

Here, then, is a second irony of the fossil fuel boom: It effectively killed off a promising technology that remained largely dormant for nearly a century, during which the carbon crisis became an existential threat to life on Earth.

Today, as we know, renewable energy from solar and wind, and significant progress in battery efficiency, are seen as key developments in the quest to save the world from global heating. But are they really? Or, in our panic-stricken efforts to slow climate change, do we run the risk of ignoring the lessons of the industrial age by embracing a “solution” that is nothing of the sort?

The word “pollution” doesn’t seem large or complex enough to encompass the scale of the damage wrought by humanity’s need for energy or the number of ways in which our addiction has harmed the planet. There is no space to rehearse them here, but they are well known, and they continue to expand, thanks to activities such as accelerating destruction of the Amazon Rainforest to make way for farms and mines, and new attempts to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic.

These are headline grabbing events driven by powerful lobbies, which recruit (and often fund) compliant politicians. But lying in wait for a world increasingly ready to clutch at any straw is a new wave of pollution driven by lithium-ion battery technology – for now, the gold standard of energy storage.

First, there’s the problem of mining, never an environmentally friendly activity. In an article for the Wellcome Collection in 2021, Laura Grace Simpkins said: “The common environmental side effects of lithium mining are water loss, ground destabilization, biodiversity loss, increased salinity of rivers, contaminated soil and toxic waste.” No big surprises there for the people and creatures of Australia, Latin America and China, which together accounted for 98 percent of lithium production in 2020, according to McKinsey. Mining for other battery constituents, such as cobalt and nickel, is not much better. But, in August 2022, reported on an International Energy Agency assessment, which said 127 new lithium, cobalt and nickel mines are needed if 2030 global carbon emissions goals are to be met.

Then there are the hidden carbon costs of manufacturing batteries, estimated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at between 2.4 tons and 16 tons of emissions for every Tesla Model 3 battery. At the top end of the scale, you’d need to travel 64,000 km in a petrol-powered vehicle to emit that amount of CO2.

Next, there’s the open question of what will happen to millions of lithium-ion batteries when they reach the end of their 10-year life. The danger, difficulty and expense of recycling them mean it’s cheaper and easier to mine new lithium. So, alongside toxic new mine dumps, we can now expect to see mountains of spent batteries loaded with heavy metals.

Naturally, scientists are tackling everything from safer and cheaper recycling methods to alternative battery technologies and materials, but in its frenzied rush to lithium, the world risks swapping one environmental crisis for another. When the Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, tweeted in July 2022 that “lithium batteries are the new oil,” he was responding to a comment by venture capitalist David Sacks that “there can be no security without energy independence.” Unfortunately, and unintentionally albeit aptly, he might just as well have been talking about pollution.

Another difficulty for electric vehicles – projected to be the biggest single growth market for lithium-ion technology – is infrastructure. Replacing the hundreds of thousands of petrol stations across the world with recharging facilities is a mammoth and expensive task. By June 2022, according to the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association, the 307,000 public charging points installed in the E.U. represent less than five percent of the number needed if the bloc is to reach its 2030 CO2 reduction target. Meanwhile, vehicles powered solely by petrol and diesel still account for 56 percent of new registrations across the E.U., pointing to significant continuing demand for fossil fuels.

Then there’s the rocketing price of lithium carbonate, which cost 493,000 Chinese yuan a ton at the end of August 2022, compared with 109,000 yuan a year earlier, according to Trading Economics. Rising demand for the metal, thanks to moves such as California’s plan to ban the sale of cars with internal combustion engines by 2035, means the price will keep rising for the foreseeable future.

Finally, for many countries, generating the electricity to recharge vehicles is, in itself, a dirty business. And that’s if there is even enough generation capacity for existing needs – a problem still common in the developing world. Consequently, for the electric vehicle manufacturers to claim zero emission, it can only truly be realized, mining and battery disposal aside, when all bulk electric generation around the world is non-emitting.

If we accept the argument that renewable energy stored in lithium-ion batteries is not the panacea for climate change, where does that leave us?

The Solution – Cracking the Biofuels Code?

Texas-based ExxonMobil, by any measure is one of the world’s largest oil producers, is leading the charge, by heading back to the roots of powered transport and investing in biofuel research in a collaboration with biotech company Viridos.

Biofuel has never had an economic advantage over fossil fuels, meaning it held little interest for investors. Soaring fuel prices spurred by geopolitical developments in 2022 are eroding that disadvantage, but agricultural hurdles such as monoculture, the need for fertilizers and a perceived global food shortage, mean it will remain difficult to defend the use of farmland for growing fuel feedstock, especially if that also involves deforestation. Then, there are emissions from biofuel processing, as well as high water use. Finally, car makers worldwide say the use of biofuels invalidates their warranties.

Most of these disadvantages disappear with the development of third-generation biofuels using microalgae as a feedstock, because these tiny organisms do not compete for arable land with food and feed crops, and they can be grown almost anywhere in salt water. Indeed, in a world where the production of fossil fuel was limited – either by legislation or by market forces – today’s big oil producers could retain their market share by using unproductive land to cultivate microalgae, some of which have a lipid (oily) content of up to 80 percent, according to a peer-reviewed paper published in 2018.

Biotechnicians are using genetic engineering to create microalgae with even higher lipid content, and Viridos says desert-based farms that cover thousands of hectares “will be the tipping point at which algae biofuel becomes an essential, scalable and cost-competitive tool to mitigate climate change.”

With CRISPR gene-editing technology putting the world on course to solving one half of the biofuel equation, a revolutionary post-harvest technique called Dynamic Cellular Disruption (DCD®) deals with the rest of the problem. By replacing the biochemical, thermochemical and chemical methods traditionally used to extract oil from algae, DCD® processing and Disruptor® technology means higher yields, a lower price and minimal environmental impact.

The Disruptor®, which has already found applications in the food, pharmaceutical and agri-chemical sectors – dramatically increasing yields and lowering costs in all cases – accelerates source material to many times the speed of sound, then decelerates it in a nanosecond, stretching the cell structure beyond the limits of its elasticity until it snaps. In doing so, the material’s inherent chemistry is released. The oil produced once microalgae have been processed in the Disruptor® is immediately ready for refining. This means no changes are needed in the refining or distribution network the world already has.

If people are concerned that continuing to burn oil will cause further harm to the climate, the EIA in the U.S. has this to say: “Production and use of biofuels is considered … to have fewer or lower negative effects on the environment compared to fossil-fuel derived fuels.” This advice, last updated in April 2022, is based on traditional agricultural feedstocks for biofuels. With microalgae, the argument becomes even more compelling.

As for the problem of vehicle manufacturers refusing to honor warranties if biofuel has been used, a strong signal that their stance will change came when companies including Toyota, Suzuki, Subaru and Daihatsu set up a research association in July 2022 to explore ways of using biomass-based fuels in internal combustion engines.

According to Reuters, the companies are keen to find greener ways of sustaining existing engine technology – including biofuels and hydrogen – so they can continue supporting supply chains that employ hundreds of thousands of people.

The gist of all this, is that using biofuels, like microalgae, just means the source of energy is grown and not mined, but that the rest, which is proven and familiar to consumers, remains in place and with better environmental impact. Existing fuel vendors continue in the value chain and can carry on business as usual as it is only the fuel source that changes.

Rudolf Diesel’s peanut oil is mainly used in cooking today but its descendant – oil from genetically engineered microalgae processed at molecular level by world-leading technology – could now see the dream of carbon-negative fuel finally coming true.

Author Profile
Roy Henderson
Co-founder and CEO - Green Cell Technologies (GCT®)

Roy Henderson is a co-founder and the CEO of Green Cell Technologies (GCT®). A retired combat officer, with a successful and medal awarded naval career over 21 years, has elicited a curious mind honed by an MBA and a drive to succeed. This has culminated in the creation and development of the ground-breaking technology – Dynamic Cellular Disruption and Disruptor Technology. 

Henderson has a refreshing reputation for forthrightness and tenacity. Everyone knows where they stand with him and with the company, which is appreciated by clients and colleagues alike. His can-do attitude, coupled with proven business acumen and a strong leaning toward problem solving, have also stood him and GCT in good stead as the company has self-funded its way from innovation to global commercial success. 

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