Latest from The Spokesman-Review
During a presentation at the IHS CERAWeek energy conference this month, General Motors CEO Dan Akerson made it clear GM is committed to making oil dependency an issue of the past. His announcement that GM is close to revealing a 200mile electric car was tempered with a warning: As he sees it, adopting a single gasoline alternative isn’t a smart move.
Big news out of the automotive world last week as a sister company to Toyota Motor secured a lithium supply deal in Argentina that could help the world’s largest automaker keep its lead in gasoline-electric hybrid cars.
Immediately we were prompted to ask, “at what cost?”
Any time we start talking about mining for resources, there is an environmental concern. So while we’re all for the pursuit of breaking America’s dependence on fossil fuels in favor of alternatie fuels, specifically electirc cars, we know there’s a bigger picture.
“When it comes to mass production of hybrids, the main hurdle has been a shortage of batteries,” said Yoshihiko Tabei, chief analyst at Kazaka Securities, in a recent Reuters story. “Toyota is taking a step on its own to secure the materials it needs to ensure stable production.”
And the main material is lithium. An element found in abundance in South America, where the cheapest extraction method evaporates salty brine in ponds lined with toxic PVC, and in lithium-rich regions of Chile where mining the material uses two-thirds of the area’s drinking water. According to a little research, lithium is the 33rd most abundant element; however, it does not naturally occur in elemental form due to its high reactivity. Lithium metal, due to its alkaline tarnish, is corrosive and requires special handling to avoid skin contact. Breathing lithium dust or lithium compounds (which are often alkaline) can irritate the nose and throat; higher exposure to lithium can cause a build-up of fluid in the lungs, leading to pulmonary edema. The metal itself is usually a handling hazard because of the caustic hydroxide produced when it is in contact with moisture causing an explosion.
Apparently it’s not as bad as that above paragraph makes it sound though, according to a recent article in TIME, “lithium mining, as observed in countries with deposits like Chile, Argentina and China, seems to be less hazardous than other kinds of mineral extraction. ‘Lithium could be one of the least contaminating mining processes,’ says Marco Octavio Rivera of Bolivia’s Environmental Defense League, although he notes that prolonged exposure to lithium can cause nervous system disorders.”
Everything comes at a higher cost than expected, so while the environmental impact might not be as bad as mountaintop mining, it’s going to be important to pay attention to this lithium race and the politcal costs, social costs, and general level of cooperation displayed. Not to mention the regulatory processes, foresight, and yes, the environmental impact, because there will be one.
Our favorite local electric car guru (if there’s more than one we apologize) has really made it big now. First George Clooney, and now Jay Leno. Rick Woodbury is one pompous dude away from bro overload. But in all seriousness, Rick Woodbury, president of Commuter Cars and maker of that fun little car you’ve probably seen around Spokane, was recently featured in a special online episode of something called Jay Leno’s Garage. Enjoy the episode below, and be sure to read past the jump to catch a story we did on the Tango, including an interview with Rick, back in January 2008.