Electric vehicles do not need to be poisonous

By Dr Peter Harrop, Chairman
Wednesday, 02 May, 2018

Electric vehicles do not need to be poisonous

Diesel vehicles are on the way out because they emit poisons — antimony, arsenic, cadmium, cobalt, cyanide, dioxin, lead, nickel, manganese, phosphorus, selenium and sulfur compounds as well as carcinogenic submicron particulates, organics and more. The brew has a lot in common with the poisons inhaled from smoking tobacco.

However, the new electronics and electrics in and on vehicles appearing over the next 10 years will contain most of those poisons and add more.

Yes, most may be no threat for one reason or another, but much of it is questionable — particularly since alternatives exist or are emerging. Indeed, a large number of devices per vehicle, each with minimal toxicant materials, may still add up to something damaging at some stage as electric vehicle sales grow rapidly across land, water and air. Those alternatives are mostly little known, and they are rarely a priority in funding for optimisation or adoption.

The IDTechEx report ‘Toxicant Materials and Alternatives in Electronics/Electrics 2018–2028’ reveals many of those safer alternatives and research to produce them. It also identifies where affordable alternatives with adequate electrical performance do not exist. These are gaps in the market, opportunities for someone and deserving of redirected research funding. Although many of the forms of poison in new electronics and electrics are relatively safe because of small volumes, encapsulation and other factors, the report concludes that the rapid proliferation of poisons in a widening variety of applications requires better monitoring and control.

Specifically, one carcinogen associated with birth defects should have a date set for a global ban, since alternatives are already successful in the marketplace in these devices in vehicles. A date is proposed.

So what else needs watching? Though not always, antimony is used in some thermoelectrics and batteries, flame retardant and as dopant in microchips. Arsenic is in planned gallium arsenide solar bodywork and is also a microchip dopant. However, that toxic gallium arsenide will be at a level of only 10 g or less per car. One manufacturer says it is acceptable in landfill. Nonetheless, care will be needed if millions of cars adopt it. Controlled disposal may be prudent by then — a date is proposed. A business opportunity exists for an equally efficient, equally flexible alternative: researchers are on the job.

Cadmium is in some quantum dot displays and researchers’ photovoltaics, while cobalt is in lithium-ion batteries, thermoelectrics and motor magnets. Beryllium is in some vehicle parts. Dioxins are emitted by inappropriate burning of PVC: manganese is in lithium-ion batteries, electroluminescent displays and thermoelectrics. Lead in a whole panoply of existing and planned electronics and electrics such as the new perovskite photovoltaics, some quantum dot displays such as QLED television, sensors, piezoelectric transducers, actuators and energy harvesters.

Indeed, the authors believe that it is time for developed countries to set a date for banning lead acid batteries. They suggest what that date should be. Many vehicles have abandoned lead acid batteries from the Porsche Spyder hybrid to many pure electric vehicles and planned 48 V mild hybrids.

Of the other poisons declining from the diesel collapse, nickel returns in motor magnets and lithium-ion batteries but is not a major threat. Selenium appears in photovoltaics and sensors. Sulfur compounds are found in sensors, electroluminescent displays, photodetectors, planned photovoltaics and QLEDs. And those diesel nanoparticles associated with breast and lung cancer, asthma, heart disease, depression, triggering uncontrolled coughing and so on? Well something similar is used to make supercapacitor electrodes and many new forms of electronics, though mercifully not as inhalable powder under normal operating conditions. There may be a disposal problem.

This is only a sample of diesel poisons returning or back already. Although most are low threat at present — indeed, QLEDs and thermoelectrics have yet to appear in a car near you and quantum dots and microchip doping represent tiny volumes — there is a prospect of some of the new poison-based devices selling in huge numbers. Think sensing, actuating and energy harvesting leading to up to 40 lead-based piezoelectrics per vehicle, in one billion vehicles. Many such as those piezoelectrics can be a threat on abuse or disposal but no problem in normal use. Other examples, including ones of concern in use, are being announced all the time.

With some admirable exceptions, research laboratories and their funding typically chase performance before safety. That impedes development of non-toxicant products. Identifying and testing these new devices and electrical materials would be very demanding. Policing laws restricting their use or their toxicant content may become near impossible in some cases. Toxicity reference works are mostly badly out of date, repeating nostalgia like the contents of a cathode ray tube.

Beyond the automotive industry there are similar reasons for concern, often involving other chemistries and nanostructures. Some researchers believe that ‘surface irritants’ such as carbon allotropes initiating pathologies leading to cancer can magnify the effects of chemical poisons, so it is not simply a matter of saying that little material is involved in some cases.

It is unfortunate that lead acid batteries are being replaced by lithium-ion batteries with toxicant electrolytes and poisons of concern such as phosphorus, cobalt, manganese, nickel and carbon allotropes. Indeed, putative replacements for lithium-ion often involve sulfur and other poisons though solid-state electrolytes are likely to be non-toxicant and non-flammable. Battery elimination is therefore gaining attention, as discussed in the report, but without seriously impacting lithium-ion batteries for at least a decade. That elimination varies from vehicles that only move in daylight to buses and cars powered by supercapacitors, some of which are non-toxicant.

The report even has a timeline of planned introduction of ‘poisons of concern’ into everyday life over the next 10 years. However, there is a note of optimism as it observes the huge effort to develop lead-free perovskite photovoltaics and some other alternatives for these worrisome poisons. Priorities are recommended and a large number of alternative non-toxicant devices in research or on sale are identified.

The report is available on the IDTechEx website.

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/rottadana

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