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Why electric cars are (truly) better than gasoline or diesel ones

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By Nicola Armaroli

· 7 min read

Poor efficiency, pollution, and obsolete technology — these are the problems of combustion engines. From 2035, in fact, gasoline or diesel cars will no longer be allowed to be sold in Europe.

Speaking of efficiency, out of ten liters of gasoline or diesel burned, only 2.5 actually move the wheels: the rest is wasted as heat. There are no margins for improvement on this. It should also be emphasized that oil is extracted from increasingly remote regions and with ever more extreme technologies. Simply put, we can no longer afford to waste three-quarters of such a precious resource. Combustion engines also pollute the air, even though the impact has decreased with Euro 4/5/6 technologies (now Euro 7 is coming). If a giant like Volkswagen could not find any other solution than to manipulate data (the so-called “dieselgate”), it means that the margins for reducing exhaust emissions are now zero.

Finally, the internal combustion engine has been around for almost 150 years. Is there any technology from a century and a half ago that we still use in the same way? The radio is no longer the same as Guglielmo Marconi's: we listen to digital channels from all over the world with our smartphones. We shouldn't be surprised to replace the internal combustion engine because we have better options. A revolution is underway, and we must govern it.

The comparison between internal combustion engine and electric motor

What is the difference between a traditional internal combustion engine car and a battery-powered one? The former is fueled by a material flow (gasoline or diesel), which is then converted into a gas completely imperceptible to our senses: CO2, colorless and odorless. The problem is that for every kilogram of gasoline burned in the engine, about three kilograms of CO2 are emitted from the exhaust pipe. Transportation accounts for a quarter of CO2 emissions, which is the main driver of climate change.

On the other hand, the electricity that charges the battery is an immaterial flow. The material aspect of the electric car is entirely concentrated in the battery, which contains various components, some more precious than others. However, the "refueling" is done only once, at the factory, because a battery lasts the entire lifespan of the car. When the car is eventually scrapped, the battery can still be used for years, for example, for renewable energy storage, before being fully recycled. So, the lithium in my battery can be used by my child and my grandchild. On the other hand, a tank of gasoline is only used by me and only once, after which I have to get another and another. 

Furthermore, the immaterial flow that powers the electric car will increasingly be produced from renewable sources like solar and wind energy. Currently, 40% of Italy's electricity production is already renewable, and the target is 70% by 2030. This means that the electricity powering the battery will become greener over time. On the other hand, the internal combustion engine will become increasingly polluting as easily accessible petroleum diminishes, and we extract fossil fuels with a growing environmental impact.

Sustainability of electric cars

Batteries contain various materials with some, like cobalt, gradually being phased out. Others, particularly lithium, are currently irreplaceable. The current exploitable lithium reserves could allow us to produce 3.2 billion cars and vans, whereas there are only 1.4 billion on the road today. China, an industrial leader in the field, is starting to produce batteries where lithium is replaced by sodium, which is much more abundant. If this technology becomes widespread, the raw material problem would largely be solved, and sustainability would increase. 

Additionally, recycling batteries is in the interest of companies. Tesla, for instance, is building a recycling gigafactory next to its Nevada factory, ensuring a steady supply of materials for new cars without the need for additional purchases. Of course, batteries must be designed to be easily disassembled, but this applies to all the items we use. So far, nothing has been produced to be recycled because we are immersed in a linear economy, where waste is a problem and not a resource.

Possible alternatives?

The number one alternative to internal combustion cars is battery-powered cars because the electric grid already exists, and lithium batteries are a mature and continuously improving technology. Hydrogen-powered cars are also electric, but electricity is used to produce hydrogen from water. This gas is then transported to a refueling station, loaded into the car's tanks at extremely high pressure, and finally "burned" in a fuel cell to produce the electricity that powers the vehicle. All these steps require energy, and a hydrogen-powered car consumes three times more electricity to travel the same distance as an electric battery-powered car. Moreover, the latter can be directly charged at home with a solar panel system, a generally unwelcome solution for energy companies because consumers become energy producers themselves and stop being customers.

As for using synthetic fuels or biofuels, they do not improve the efficiency and pollution of traditional engines. They do not solve the problem for society but only for companies that can use existing infrastructures like tankers and fuel stations. These fuels may be useful for heavy and long-distance transportation, such as ships and airplanes, but they do not make sense for lightweight road transport.

The costs

Currently, luxury electric cars can be less expensive than traditional ones already. On more economical models, the difference can range from 20% to 40% in favor of traditional cars, but between 2025 and 2027, costs are expected to become equal. In any case, electric cars significantly reduce maintenance costs since there are no worn parts such as transmissions, clutch, and pumps. If I charge my car at home, the cost of "fuel" is less than half that of gasoline.

Charging infrastructure

Regarding charging stations, Italy has one of the highest numbers in Europe in proportion to the population and the number of vehicles on the road. Cars are parked 95% of the time, so the concept is simple: they should be recharged during these long parking periods. Charging sites should be increased at workplaces (where people spend their days and during daylight hours when solar production is at its peak) and in large parking lots (supermarkets, stadiums, hospitals). 

The real problem lies in the outskirts of cities built between the 1950s and 1970s, where there are few parking spaces and garages. Several options are possible, such as using "smart" streetlight poles with electrical outlets spaced every 20 meters. It is also important to distinguish between high, medium, and low-power charging stations. High-power stations are suitable for highways or national roads where drivers are in a hurry, medium-power stations are more common in cities where parking lasts a few hours, while low-power stations are installed in garages where cars can be left to charge for 10-12 hours.

The future of cars

Italy currently has around 40 million cars on the road, but by 2040, this number should be reduced to no more than 24 million. This is primarily possible because of the declining birth rate, but also because mass transportation in urban areas will improve. Already today, metropolises like Paris and Milan have residents who do not own a personal car and rent one for long trips when needed. Between restrictions and speed limits, we will also be disincentivized to use cars, but we will need to increase cycling paths and finally enhance public transportation. With electric cars, the very concept of a car changes: a Tesla can have a 50 kWh battery, just like a small utility car. On the other hand, a traditional car becomes "bigger" as it gets larger. Essentially, the electric car is a battery with wheels and software. It is a radically different concept that forces us to undergo the most challenging transition: the mental one.

This article is also published in Corriere della Sera (in Italian). illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Nicola Armaroli is Research Director at the Italian National Research Council (CNR) and member of the Italian National Academy of Sciences. He studies the conversion of light into electricity and fuels and the transition of the global energy system. Nicola has delivered tens of invited lectures worldwide and published hundreds of scientific articles.

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