The high demand for the lithium ion batteries that power electric vehicles like those produced by Tesla Motors could potentially do more harm than good to the environment, according to a report Sunday from The Washington Post.
The electric vehicle automaker uses Panasonic batteries, which, according to the report, uses graphite derived from mines in China. The mines are raining graphite particles down on the residents of several villages in northeastern in the country.
Tesla told reporters its batteries do not include graphite from the Chinese company BTR, yet declined to identify its graphite source. Nearly 75 percent of the world’s graphite comes from the northeastern section of the China. The company’s refusal to explain where its graphite is produced could raise questions about the environmental soundness of its vehicles.
Panasonic, one of the largest manufacturers of Tesla’s lithium ion batteries, is forking over $1.6 billion to the cost of Tesla’s “gigafactory,” a massive factory meant to build the company’s lithium ion batteries. Tesla believes the Nevada-based plant will produce about 500,000 electric-car batteries annually.
Panasonic seemed unimpressed by the report, telling reporters the company investigated the issue and “found that the operators received an administrative directive from the local authorities in 2014 and have since that time implemented the necessary environmental countermeasures.”
Still, the report laid out in excruciating detail some of the effects graphite mining has on Chinese communities.
One couple living in Jixi, a city near the Russian border, told reporters that graphite dust covers their corn crop so much that simply walking outside leaves their faces blackened, according to the report. The dust also leaches into the couple’s house, infusing itself into the food and water.
Inhaling the particulate matter causes respiratory troubles, according to health experts.
Tesla vehicles, and electric cars in general, are sold to consumers as environmentally friendly alternatives to fossil fuel burning vehicles – the report, which was published Oct. 2, indicates the productive tools used to make their batteries is destructive.
Tech analysts have warned investors in the past that Tesla’s brand name could be damaged by its use of lithium batteries.
The graphite in the mines of the plants Washington Post visited is produced through a flaking process rather than in a kiln, which, according to the newspaper’s report, is less expensive but ultimately dirtier and more harmful to surrounding communities.
A typical electric car requires thousands of times the battery power than a small phone, tablet or laptop.
An increase in demand for lithium batteries — spurred on by the likes of Tesla — could exacerbate the problem, Simon Moores, managing director of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, told reporters. Moores’ firm tracks demand and assesses prices for raw materials in the industry.
This is “not just a Tesla story,” Moores said, adding: “The demand is rising everywhere, especially in China.”
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