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Do electric cars use fossil fuels? - Case study of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile
Shayma Shamim
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Published on 7th Dec 21

Do electric cars use fossil fuels? - Case study of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile

Seizing the market opportunity, car manufacturers now have electric and hybrid cars in their catalogue, which are supposed to put a full stop to the pollution caused by heat engines. If the electric motor has been considered "green", then the components used in the design of the batteries should also be green but it is not the case, it generates other pollution. Without forgetting the charging which is carried out most often with nuclear energy and the inevitable recycling of said batteries. Are electric vehicles really green? Not yet.


Case study of The Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert is located in northern Chile. It is one of the oldest desert areas in the world, a reservoir of salt and ancient meteorites, some of which date back millions of years. This immense desert area is also highly coveted since it alone holds 40% of the world's reserves of lithium. Lithium is the main ingredient in batteries used by cars, bicycles, scooters, and also smartphones, and computers.

It is not the only place on the planet, the other lithium extraction sites are located in the salt deserts of Argentina, Bolivia, a "golden triangle" which concentrates 59% of the world reserves, China (26%), Australia (5%), and the United States (3%) according to data from Deutsche Bank. Another Lithium deposit was discovered last year, in the Sonoran Desert, in northern Mexico, 170 km from the US-Mexico border. It would then be the largest lithium deposit in the world, with 4.5 Mt of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE).

If for some these desert areas are unproductive areas, then you might as well use them, they nevertheless develop into the ecosystem necessary for the functioning of the planet. Modifying it on a large scale endangers our land in the same way as forests devastated to produce palm oil or wetlands to build. As to extract the lithium, it is necessary to evaporate the water by further drying up the deserts. As deserts that have no life on the surface because they contain water in the subsoil. According to an investigation, when the exploitation of the Chilean mines started, the Atacama Desert had already lost 430 billion litres of water.


"The mining of lithium is only just beginning", rejoices the Chilean under-secretary of mining Ricardo Irarrazabal Sanchez. Much to the chagrin of the local populations and the animals that live in these hostile regions. And this condition will not get better because these mines are managed by private companies which donate part of their profits to the Chilean State in the form of taxes. The latter understood that they had their feet under a real gold mine, just like oil for the Arab Emirates. Especially since, from cars to mobile phones, lithium demands are gradually increasing and this is not about to stop unless other forms of energy storage are discovered.

Electric cars do use fossil fuels

Of course, electric motors are less polluting than heat engines, since they do not emit gas when used. But in both cases they use fossil fuels, one injected and burnt into the engine, the other Lithium, entering into the design of the batteries that allow it to run. For the second case, the extraction mines oblige to move the local populations or to exploit them. The case in the Atacama is not only modifying the local ecosystems but also using other energies, polluting like the nuclear one for recharge without forgetting the stock of batteries, which must be quickly recycled to prevent them from ending their life, buried in the ground.

Should we conclude that these green technologies are not so virtuous as we are led to believe and that in the end, it is better to keep our good old diesel car, the one which has rendered us so many services and which we can follow? the plume of smoke? Certainly not. The electric car constitutes an important technological advance on the environmental plan, even if the cleanliness of which we are being rebuffed is still far from assured. It, therefore, remains to work on the subject by refraining from replacing one fossil fuel with another, by showing ethics in what we use, produce and consume.

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