Electric cars are frequently criticized for hidden environmental impacts, from carbon dioxide emitted during manufacturing to the source of electricity while charging.
A point of criticism is the environmental risks associated with mining lithium, a vital component of electric car batteries. One Instagram post focused on heavy machinery used as part of the mining process.
The Nov. 30 post is a screenshot of another social media post, featuring an image of a person dwarfed by a large yellow Caterpillar haul truck. The same image has been used in other social media posts that make similar statements about electric car batteries.
“This machine is required to move 500,000 pounds of earth in order to get the minerals needed for ONE SINGLE (Tesla) car battery,” the text in the screenshot reads. “In whose world does this type of math and green new deal make sense?”
The post doesn’t provide further information to back up its claim and doesn’t specify what minerals are needed for a Tesla battery. Besides lithium, Tesla batteries also contain cobalt and nickel, minerals that are also mined.
The post misleads by implying that it takes enormous, gas-powered machinery moving huge amounts of material to produce a single electric vehicle.
The Instagram post was flagged as part of Instagram’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram.)
Corby Anderson, a Colorado School of Mines professor, said mining operations typically use large-haul trucks, like the one in the Instagram post, to transport materials. A moderately sized haul truck can carry 500,000 pounds — equivalent to 250 tons — of material.
“Moving 250 tons of material is not that big a deal in the mining industry,” he said.
The Instagram post doesn’t include any information about how lithium is sourced or how much lithium is needed in a Tesla battery.
Half of the lithium used in the world comes not from mining, but from extraction through geothermal brines. Saltwater is evaporated and the mineral is harvested from the desiccated remnants, said Brendan Moran, a hydrogeology researcher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Brine extraction doesn’t move large amounts of earth and wouldn’t require a large truck.
When lithium is obtained through traditional mining, it’s done primarily in Australia from spodumene, a mineral consisting of lithium aluminum inosilicate.
Moran said Tesla batteries can contain “somewhere between 5 to 75 kilograms” (11 to 165 pounds) of lithium depending on the model. Tesla gets the lithium for its batteries from both brine and hard-rock sources.
The post says 500,000 pounds of earth must be moved to extract enough lithium for one Tesla battery. But that is inaccurate when it comes to spodumene mining, Moran said; It takes less than 10,000 pounds of ore to produce around 2,000 pounds of spodumene.
The only way a truck hauling 500,000 pounds of earth would contain minerals for just a single car battery is if the ore’s lithium content was 0.1%, Anderson said.
The hard-rock mine that supplies some of the lithium Tesla uses said its ore naturally contains up to about 2.1% lithium, making it highly unlikely that a truck would carry enough mineral for only one battery.
“Mining is extractive and does not have zero (environmental) impact, but the impact spans a large range, and lithium mining and use is on the low end of this, not to mention necessary to build a fully electric economy,” Moran said.
An Instagram post shared an image of large machinery and said it’s “required to move 500,000 pounds of earth in order to get the minerals needed for one single Tesla car battery.”
The only way a truck hauling 500,000 pounds of earth would contain minerals for just a single car battery is if the ore’s lithium content was 0.1%. The ores from the hard-rock mine Tesla uses contain up to 2.1% lithium.
It takes less than 10,000 pounds of material to produce 2,000 pounds of spodumene — a mineral filled with lithium aluminum inosilicate. The maximum amount of lithium a Tesla car battery contains is around 165 pounds.
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