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Cheryl Hughes: The Little Engine That Couldn't

My great uncle, on my father’s side, ran a meat processing plant, but also dabbled as an inventor.  He chased after the illusive perpetual motion motor off and on for years; once, almost blowing up the entire hillside where he lived, according to my dad.  

Many inventors have chased perpetual motion concepts—an engine that once started will keep going into perpetuity by making its own energy to continue—nobody has succeeded.  Scientists say it can’t be done because it’s against the law—the first two laws of thermodynamics and the law of gravity.  If not for those laws, we would have engines that once started could run forever.  However, engines, like people, need fuel to run, and once the energy source is depleted, the engine stops.  Even the sun is not a source of inexhaustible energy, because one day, albeit millions of years from now, it will burn out.

For years, most of our energy sources have been fossil fuels of some kind.  Due to the fear of climate change, fueled by greenhouse emissions from these fuels, however, there is a global endeavor underway to have net zero carbon emissions by the year 2050.  According to, “Getting to net zero emissions means we can still produce some emissions as long as they are offset by processes that reduce greenhouse gasses already in the atmosphere.  The holy grail for this push seems to be to make sure we are all driving electric vehicles by this date.  Ford and GM auto makers have announced they will be making mostly electric vehicles by 2035.  Electric motors increase the demand for batteries that can store that power for long periods of time over many miles.

I am not a physicist, but I am a big fan of recycling, and I know it wouldn’t be good for all of those batteries and their chemical components to end up in our landfills.  According to, there are scientists working on “closed-loop recycling.”  This method involves recovering some of the battery components in order to reduce our need for “primary material demand.”  There are two processes they use to extract these reusable components.  The first is the hydrometallurgical process, which involves “acid and leaching and subsequent recovery of battery materials…through solvent extraction and precipitation.”  The second is the pyrometallurgical process which involves “smelting entire batteries and battery components.”

If your eyes haven’t glazed over yet, I’m getting to my point, or points, as it were, which are these: What fuel source will be used to recycle these batteries, what fuel source will be used to extract the metals and ores used in these batteries, and where are these metals and ores located—geographically?  Aren’t we going to have to use fossil fuels, like oil, coal and natural gas to mine metals and ores, build the batteries, and finally to recycle them.  I’m not criticizing the lofty goal of trying to clean up our environment, I just worry about the consequences of pinning all our hopes on batteries, as well as the consequences to the people living in the countries where the compounds used in these batteries are mined.

The components of the lithium-ion battery are lithium, cobalt, nickel and manganese (  Do you know where these are found?  You guessed it, not in the good old USA.  Lithium comes from Australia, Chile and Argentina.  Over half of the world’s cobalt supply comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Nickel is mined in Ontario, Canada, and the main mining area for manganese is China, followed by Africa and Australia.

In a perfect world, the US would work with these countries in free trade agreements, making sure each side got a fair shake.  This isn’t a perfect world, however, and the US doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to making fair trade agreements—the European explorers who settled this country and their exploitation of the  Native American Indians comes to mind, as well as our conflicts in the oil-rich Middle East.  It doesn’t take a Psychic to foresee a lot of people getting rich and a lot of people being exploited.  I just wish we could learn what history has taught us and if not that, at least what we learned in Sunday school: It’s always best to share.   


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