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Could Electric Cars lose momentum?

By: Lisa Keegan

Date: 2010-04-05

Electric Vehicles have been around for a number of years now, with varying levels of success, but there has yet to be a car that successfully appeals to the mass market. The Mitsubishi i-MiEV hopes to change all that. The iMiEV is a four-seater, bubble-shaped car which has become the first mass-market electric vehicle to go on sale in Japan.

The main advantages to buying an electric car have always been the low running costs and low environmental impact. To date, these advantages have rarely outweighed the disadvantages, namely high initial cost, short range between charges, low speed capabilities and inconveniently-long charging times.

The Mitsubishi i-MiEV and it's closest rival, the Nissan Leaf, have addressed some of these drawbacks which could allow the electric vehicle to be lifted out of the obscurity of niche markets.The issue of the high initial cost of the vehicle has been largely addressed by government subsidies and lower taxes on zero-emissions vehicles. This, together with the relatively high top-speed of the i-MiEV (81mph), may enable the vehicle to appeal to a wider audience.

The sales and marketing of electric cars is based on the low environmental impact of these vehicles. The counter argument to this has been the fact that, in many cases, fossil fuels and not renewable energy are being used to generate the energy to power the batteries. While this is true in many cases, it is the more efficient use of this energy in the electric car that significantly reduces its' environmental impact.

So to argue that a more prevalent use of electric vehicles will lessen our dependence on oil imports is true, it does however mean a greater dependence on another, more restricted natural resource, aptly named 'Rare Earth'. This mineral is the 'Kryptonite' of the Electric Car, and deposits large enough to mine are rare, except that is in China, which currently produces more than 90% of the world's output of these metals.

The Rare Earth metals include 15 entries on the periodic table and are used in various different ways to make hybrid and electric cars. One of these applications is the use of neodymium, a key component in an alloy used to make the high-power magnets for electric motors of hybrid cars. According to Reuters 'Worldwide demand for rare expected to exceed supply by some 40,000 tonnes annually in several years unless major new production sources are developed.'

Factors such as improvements in battery charging time and higher speed capabilities are not the key to the future of the electric vehicle, this future lies primarily in the availability of 'Rare Earth' metals or the development of an alternative to this natural resource. Although the environmental argument for electric vehicles is easily-made, we may be just shifting our dependence from one tightly-controlled resource to an even more tightly-controlled one, making the electric car seem more of a gamble than ever before.

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