Unearthing Electric Mobility: From Oil To Rare Earth

Almost everyone is aware of the many issues facing the planet and its population.

electric scooter

Almost everyone is aware of the many issues facing the planet and its population. There are three key issues that I like to call the 3Ps that stand out among others: pollution (particulate matters, Nox, SO2), planet (greenhouse gases, or GHG) and poverty (inflation and depletion of limited resources).

Pollution alone kills approximately 9 million people per year and is a major issue in emerging markets. GHG emissions, which have received a lot of attention for valid reasons, kill millions of people per year. And poverty is estimated to kill more than 10,000 children a day. If people had to see how much their means of mobility contribute to these silver killers, they would find that the cost of mobility is very high.

A two- or three-wheeler is estimated to cause 10 times the pollution per passenger mile than a car. The primary reason is the smaller inefficient engine and the predominant use of low-quality fuel, which is sometimes mixed with additives to reduce the cost of driving at the expense of pollution. A large part of the world's population moves on two- and three-wheelers. If you take the pollution out of these vehicles, you can really see the impact they had on the environment.

Greenhouse gas emissions need no explanation. However, what is important to acknowledge is that emissions are generated not only in the operation of a new vehicle but in the manufacturing of it, as well. One estimate shows almost six tons of CO2 is generated in manufacturing a vehicle. This means that any solution to scrap gasoline-powered vehicles in favor of manufacturing electric vehicles will still generate a large amount of CO2.

The obstacles in curbing emissions don't halt the agreement that many hold: it's important to move to sustainable mobility. However, the methods to achieve sustainable mobility also create problems. Many electric vehicles rely on drivetrains that utilize rare earth magnets while some vehicles also utilize magnets in sensors.

Producing one ton of rare earths to make a magnet is estimated to generate 2,000 tons of toxic waste and can result in radioactive exposure and radioactive waste generation. One ton of magnet generates approximately 60 tons of CO2. There are regions in northern China where dumping of the waste metals has caused the water to become toxic. In the rush to make everything electric, people might be causing another problem which puts these new solutions under a spotlight and begs the question if they are suitable for the next generation.

If people know that the vehicles they are driving are made out of components that are responsible for creating nuclear waste, will it change the choice? If carbon is dangerous, then is nuclear waste equally dangerous?

Also, economically it makes sense for alternate technologies to emerge that do not use magnets or require specifically rare earth magnets. The cost of rare earth is highly volatile and increases rapidly, it also has certain geopolitical advantages that can be used by the countries that have monopolies over those minerals. The question is, why are these technologies not developed?

The answer is simple and complex. The first reason is that there are many industries thriving on these minerals and so it's not in their interest to find alternatives. Think about oil. Would companies like Shell have turned to an electric solution if not for Tesla and other outside pressures? Second, these technologies need money and a gestation period — which does not fit in the typical venture capital model that pursues growth at all costs and quick exits to make the most money fast. Additionally, many VCs come from a software background and lack in-depth knowledge of these technologies. This means they may not feel as comfortable pursuing them.

There are multiple challenges that need to be solved before the world can truly make mobility sustainable. Until then, everyone who believes in giving a better planet to the next generation should work on making sure that they do not jump from a bed of thorns into the fire.

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