Sir, – The impression is given, notably by the motor trade, that the electric car will help enormously in the efforts to resolve our climate change challenge. But the problem isn’t electric versus diesel or petrol – the problem is the car itself.
All those clever inventions to keep the Arctic ice-shelf from melting – electric cars, solar panels, smart grids, wind turbines – suffer a fatal flaw: the need for rare-earth metals. Prized for their exceptional magnetic properties, these metals now appear in a swathe of modern technologies (basically, if it uses electricity and so much as a nanometre of it moves, it’s on the list). In total, 17 natural elements carry the descriptor “rare-earth metals” – erbium, thulium, lutetium, yttrium, etc.
In the electric car, the UV glass in the windscreen is made with cerium, the headlights with neodymium, the component sensors with yttrium, and so on.
Neodymium, terbium, and dysprosium are used in the vibrator unit in a smartphone, three more rare-earth metals are used in the speaker and microphone, and another couple in the electronics.
First, the environmental ramifications. In China’s Jiangxi province, home to the largest supply of rare-earth metals, toxic waste has been discharged directly into streams and rivers.
Everywhere rare-earth metals are mined – be it the Democratic Republic of Congo , Kazakhstan or Vietnam,pollution and environmental destruction follow.
Safety standards aside, it’s hugely inefficient. For example extracting, crushing and refining 1,200 tonnes of rock will yield just one kilo of lutetium.
So the electric car is not necessarily the solution to the climate change challenge of the car.
The ordinary bicycle is really your only man (or woman).
The smartphone is a separate, but equal, challenge. – Yours, etc,