Since passing my test, I’ve taken a keen interest in all things automotive. I honed a genuine appreciation for some of the world’s finer cars. I’ve even been fortunate enough to have owned a few.
These days, I keep a few classic cars. I’ve enjoyed taking part in numerous classic motoring events in Portugal, the UK as well as over in Ireland. I still manage to enjoy modern motoring even in these infuriatingly gridlocked times.
For me, classic vehicles represent nostalgia. They seldom provide actual reliability or ease of maintenance. That’s because as the years wear on, spare parts get more and more difficult to source. When this happens I begin to lose patience and the interest wanes. I end up getting rid of the things and let some other ‘keen enthusiast’ adopt all the headaches. Modern cars don’t seem to interest me all that much although I do keep a ‘modern’ for the sake of reliability and to meet the more practical daily needs.
I’m not really sure what car buyers are looking for these days. Are any of us actually buying personal transport solutions or are we buying some kind of mobile i-Pad ‘plaything’ on wheels? I find the controls on modern cars fiddly and distracting. The dashboards seem to be morphing into banks of 4K LED screens with computerised drop-down menus instead of tangible buttons that actually do something useful. These days, each time I touch anything on a dashboard, a warning light flashes along with an annoying ‘avon lady’ chime and I lose all the information that I actually need - along with the will to live. Please! Just show me the speed, temperature, revs and how much fuel I’ve got left. I really don’t need to read angry text messages from my wife informing me that I’m hopelessly late for supper. I certainly don’t need my car telling me what’s new on NETFLIX.
But these little irritations are as nothing compared to what’s coming down the line as the automotive industry grapples with the urgent need to abandon engines which directly burn fossil fuels. However, it does seem to me that the inexorable march towards an ‘electric car revolution’ has been a bit rushed. All the eggs have suddenly appeared in one oversized basket with all other alternative solutions seemingly ditched. The world and its dog is adopting the EV concept and that just seems to be that.
But. There’s no such thing as a free lunch even when it comes to EVs. They’re not as altogether wholesome and squeaky clean as we’ve been led to believe. That’s because if we really do find ourselves compelled to ditch our internal combustion engines, not only will we soon be sitting on the world’s most enormous scrap heap but we’re also going to need to replace all those scrapped petrol and diesel vehicles with something else. We all know that producing anything that’s made in factories and made in such enormous quantities as motor vehicles is going to use up a whole lot of energy, generate a whole lot of pollution and consume a vast amount of resources. Finite resources - such as lithium.
So how does any of this make things better? Better for who exactly? This is a question that ought to be asked when examining all aspects of renewables. None of it is remotely perfect and none of it comes without a carbon footprint all of its very own. A big one at that! Especially when we’re being told to cut our emissions NOW and cut BIG.
Reports suggest that the global reserve of lithium is hard to determine but varying figures have been suggested. These estimates run between 14 and 40 million metric tons. To help put this into some sort of context, there’s around 63kg of lithium in a 70kWh Tesla Model S battery pack. That’s quite a lot when you think about how little of it exists in this poor, beleaguered world of ours.
Of course lithium, just like coal or iron, needs to be mined. That means that communities who live near to these mines, like those in northern Portugal, could potentially be adversely affected by our invigorated quest for this rare and precious metal. Portugal has an estimated lithium reserve of around 60,000 metric tons which just so happens to be the largest reserve in Europe.
I’m sorry to burst any bubbles but the fact is, mining for lithium isn’t exactly a simple, easy, cheap or a particularly clean process. Far from it in fact. To extract lithium, miners need to pump an enormous amount of brine solution into the ground - having first bored a rather enormous hole to pump it into. Then they leave what comes oozing out of those holes to evaporate for months on end; creating a delightfully knoxious soup of potassium, manganese and all sorts of other unpleasantries. It can then be sent to a huge filtration system to eventually produce the coveted lithium carbonate.
Luckily, we won’t have to blast the countryside to smithereens in order to mine for lithium. However the process does have some other major downsides. It needs a huge amount of another precious commodity in order to extract it. Water. Half a million gallons of it per ton of extracted lithium.
God love them - but Gretta & Co don’t tend to focus much attention on these drawbacks when promoting the ideologies of ‘’greening up’. It can look a lot like ‘’browning down’’ when you look at it more forensically. Fact is, nearly everything we do in our western societies has an environmental impact.
Disturbingly, history shows that lithium mining on a large scale (and it really is going to have to be on a massive scale) may well be the catalyst for droughts and even food shortages for some of the communities who live anywhere near the mines. Contamination of water supplies could present serious issues because it really is very far from being a ‘clean’ process. Of course, big mining corporations won’t want any of us to think too deeply about any of these more worrying drawbacks. It looks like the aim is to try and pacify any nay-sayers with huge compensation settlements.
In the case of Portugal’s lithium story, a UK-based mining company is leading the way towards lithium extraction. Their proposals have been hugely controversial because the affected lands have been farmed by local communities for countless generations. Now, this land lies at the very epicentre of European lithium operations - in Barroso.
But, we’re told not to worry too much about local environments. It’s all perfectly OK. According to the mining company’s top brass, the company will “Provide Portugal with a whole raft of opportunities for downstream developments in the lithium value-chain.” Now, without sounding in any way bumptious, I reckon that most of us have a reasonably respectable grasp of the English language but I’m blown if I know what any of that means. Do you?
Douglas Hughes is a UK-based writer producing general interest articles ranging from travel pieces to classic motoring.