Electric Vehicles: Sustainable Environmental Battery [Iron Warrior article] - by Brendan Smith

It is becoming steadily easier to make a good case against the continued mass production and use of gasoline-powered Internal Combustion Engine Vehicles (ICEVs) in today’s world. According to the Department of Energy, ICEVs are the source of approximately half of the air pollution produced in the United States. Most would agree that the pollutants released by these vehicles, such as oxides of sulphur, carbon, and nitrogen, hydrocarbons, and particulate matter, are detrimental to the future of our environment and our current standard of living. The discussion enters a gray area however, when talk of solutions come into play. Among the possible alternatives to gasoline-powered ICEVs, which include ethanol, biodiesel, and hydrogen, Battery- powered Electric Vehicles (BEVs) seem to be at the forefront of the race to curb a century-old thirst for gasoline. At a glance, the BEV seems to be the perfect challenger: clean, quiet, with even the ability to provide greater torque from a stopped position, which should appeal to environmentally conscious street racer types. The issue is not so cut and dried though; because the feel-good commercialsfor BEVs such as the Chevy Volt and Toyota Prius don’t necessarily tell the whole story. Critics of BEV development point to flaws such as lack of long range capabilities, frequent recharging requirements, overstressing of the electric grid, and high prices. Likely the greatest weapon in the naysayer’s arsenal is the heart of the concept itself, the battery on which the BEV ultimately depends. These batteries are, by necessity, manufactured using metals such as copper, aluminum, gold and tin, some of which are quite rare, and can also be very toxic when released into the environment following disposal of the battery. Although battery lifetime is improving with the development of new technologies, it could still be considered as inadequate, with the need for relatively frequent replacement exposing the lack of efficient recycling and disposal techniques available. Furthermore, a large fraction of both the production and disposal of these batteries takes place in foreign countries. This means that the energy and environmental cost of shipping these heavy units back and forth across the ocean could possibly counteract their benefits. In order to answer some of these questions, the Technology and Society Laboratory at the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology recently performed a comprehensive life cycle analysis (LCA) of the contribution of lithium-ion batteries to the environmental impact of BEVs. LCA is a method designed to assess potential environmental impact caused by products and processes which aims to quantify energy and material flow over all stages of a product's lifetime. The study focused on lithium-ion batteries because they are the most prevalent in the latest electric vehicles, due to their low maintenance requirements andthe light weight and superior electrochemical potential of lithium. The findings of the study were conclusive: the impact of the lithium-ion battery used in a BEV is relatively small. Lithium itself, although technically considered a scarce metal, can be extracted from seawater with a minimal amount of process energy; it is also only used in very small amounts in the battery and can be almost completely recycled. More environmentally taxing are the metals used in the anode and cathode of the battery, as well as the process energy required for fabrication. So, can we conclude that BEVs are environmentally sustainable or not? Ultimately, the answer depends on the source of electricity. If the power for a BEV originates from sources of which 50% or greater are fossil fuel based, then the environmental impact is estimated to be roughly equal to that of a small, efficient diesel fuelled ICEV. Taking this into account, and considering that both BEV and ICEV technologies are improving rapidly, one might argue that electric vehicles offer no advantage. However, the fact that the renewable energy industry is slowly gaining momentum, while peak oil is less than a decade away by the most optimistic predictions, means that the ICEV will soon be forced into oblivion by fuel scarcity, like it or not. In conclusion, don’t be shocked if you begin to see a rapid increase in electric vehicles on the road over the next few years-they could just be the spark that will start a transportation revolution!

Water Point Mapping and E5

I recently noticed that there is a petition circulating for installing water fountains in E5, and I thought to myself, “Hey EWB knows how to improve water point monitoring, maybe we can help!” So in my blog post for this week, I am going to talk about how EWB monitors water points in Malawi, and how the lessons learned there can help the fight for water fountains here.

Good decisions are made with good data. Data is extremely important in decision making at higher levels. Just as Malawian decision makers use the data available to determine where old water points should be repaired and where new ones should be built, decision makers at UW require data to determine where new water fountains would be most effective. Good data is useless without a way to interpret and analyze it. A former Waterloo EWB Chapter member, Edward Ng, developed a very elegant system for visualizing water point coverage and functionality in Malawi. The genius behind it is the simplicity. It is entirely self-contained within Microsoft Excel, requiring no complicated GIS software or unreliable internet connection. It is easy to update with minimal computer knowledge at a district level, and easy to interpret by a politician at a national level.


Data from the database sheet is collated automatically into the pivot table above which breaks down water coverage by Traditional Authority, Group Villages, and Villages. Data is easily interpreted through use of a colour scheme.

As we quickly look at this data, we notice a few things. First is the fact that the Mtembo village has no water coverage. This could be paralleled to E5 having no water fountains. Another significant data point on the table is the low functionality in Mikunga. This is similar to the water fountains in E2 with their low stream height. Finally there is the village of Mlomba with extremely high coverage, which is like the abundant water fountains in Dana Porter. Each village has unique water coverage, and the pivot table is an easy to visualize where new wells need to be build, and where old ones need to be repaired. A map showing the very same data can be so much more effective. People like maps, plain and simple. A coloured coded map shows more than just the numbers behind the data.


Data is automatically transferred into a map of the district. The map is easy to create and modify. See how to do it here .

It is evident that this excel spread sheet does most of the work in providing professional looking visuals for the higher ups, but where does all the data come from? From 2004 to 2006 most of the water points in Malawi were mapped with the assistance of external agency funding. This provided a great framework for mapping the water points, but functionality must also be taken into consideration. Updating a GIS database at a district level required too many resources, too much time and result in out dated data. With the use of this excel spreadsheet, updating the database and analyzing the results takes a fraction of the time. In the Chikhwawa district, the database is updated every 6 months with only governmental funding. The challenge of presenting good data about the E5 water fountain situation is the requirement for data. No data about the availability of water fountains in every building is readily available, but once this data is found, it can be quickly summarized with a modification of this program.

As engineers, we like to take an analytical approach to the challenges we face, and good data interpretation is a key part of this. Sound data presented in a clear manner with a clear course of recommended actions is the best way to create change. This is one of the ways EWB is creating change in Malawi, and it should be how change is created in E5.

For a lot more in depth information about water point monitoring: http://blogs.ewb.ca/africanprograms/files/2010/08/WPMonitoring-in-Machin...

Syndicate content