Electric cars are often lauded as being kind to the environment, but there is a darker, more environmentally harmful side to the creation of these greener-than-thou vehicles, scientists say.
Researchers at Newcastle University have suggested the motors used in cars such as the Mitsubishi iMiev and Nissan Leaf are built using rare-earth metals, the mining of which is incredibly destructive to the environment.
To overcome this issue, a team of UK engineers has been assembled to help develop a new motor for electric cars that will significantly reduce dependency on the costly minerals.
James Widmer, of Newcastle University's Centre for Advanced Electrical Drives, explained, "The pressure on supplies of rare-earth metals coupled with rising demand for this technology means the pressure is on to find an alternative."
He has a point. Rare-earth materials such as dysprosium and neodymium are primarily sourced from China. It has been reported that, in many cases, criminal gangs gather the topsoil from a piece of land, move it into large dirt pits and filter the metals using acid washes that separate metals from the soil. The remaining soil is heavily contaminated and heavy rains can wash the acid residue downstream to farmlands and rivers, polluting everything in its path.
Putting an end to these destructive practices is crucial if electric cars can be considered a truly green alternative to their fossil-fuelled counterparts, which is why Widmer and his team are looking into replacing rare-earth metals with steel, which is not only less damaging to the environment, but is also cheaper and more widely available.
So far, the team has attracted £518,000 in government funding to develop a low-cost, high-volume electric motor that uses zero rare-earth materials. Project leaders say the motor should be ready for volume production by 2016.