Mini E – an Enviromental Disaster Looms from Muddled Thinking

Truly this car is the pits.

Electric Mini Page

-and here’s how..

The engineers seem to have responded with the most short-term planning possible to a demand from the BMW marketing department to make the company look green now that sales of their monster cars are down 40%.  Some “ad” bloke has said “clean electricity, that’s the way forward!” in a similar manner to which electricity was sold in the 60’s.  The engineers have jumped.

Of course, electricity is wonderful, make no mistake.  It’s not for nothing that all the fastest trains in the world are electric-powered.  Even diesel locos are electric powered at the wheels.  Electric motors, like human muscles, generate their greatest torque (turning power) at low speeds.  But that’s not the point.

The point is that this car is made and sold as a replacement for petrol cars.  And there lies the problem.  The engineers have satisfied a marketing question and have not considered the car as part of the whole  environment, that is, the world that we all have to live in.

In fact, economically, it isn’t even a good deal.

Basic specs:

  • It’s a two seater (not four!).  The batteries take up half the car!
  • It weighs one and a half tons!
  • It’s max payload is only 160kg!
  • It takes all night to charge up!
  • It only does 150 miles.
  • They’ve designed it to accelerate like rocket (it’s a commuter car, apparently….wot?  No traffic lights in dreamland?)
  • The spec has no mention of a heater!
  • The battery weighs at least half a tonne.
  • It uses lithium-ion batteries.
  • There is only 35 million tonnes of lithium on our world.
  • About half the battery is lithium, say 250kg – quarter of a tonne.

So if, and it’s a BIG IF, if we managed to get all the lithium in the world and use it all for car batteries, so that we used none for mobile phones and laptops, we could make only 140 million mini-sized cars, for the whole world! (There are currently 28 million cars in the UK alone!)

This is obviously nonsense and fully explains my comment about the car, and it’s designers, and the mentality behind such a plan – as the pits!

But wait!  There’s more!

  • The advertising puff is full of the car’s green credentials and even has wind-turbines in the background!…
  • The average commercial cost for a wind turbine is about £1m per MW of capacity.
  • The mini’s batteries store 35kWh of energy.
  • So a 1MW turbine running for an hour would provide the energy for 28 minis!  That’s 685 minis a day.
  • But 1MW turbines don’t produce 1MW all day.  Far from it!  A third of a day if they’re lucky!  So we need to spend £1m to keep about 200 minis on the road.

More nonsense.

But wait!  There’s more!

  • It’s not just lithium in the batteries….
  • Remember, all the laptops catching fire?  Same lithium-ion batteries, only smaller.
  • Many parts of the batteries are toxic, inflammable or explosive. LiCo Oxide, propylene carbonate, paint-stripper, ether,
  • The electrolyte in the batteries is also extremely toxic and destroys your mucus membranes on contact.
  • This means, if you have a “normal” crash and the battery leaks, before you can be cut from your car you will be blinded by the fumes and suffer damaged lungs for the rest of your life – and that’s without them catching fire. (see safety video here: battery safety video)

So the batteries are dodgy, especially in the motor vehicle context.

But wait! There’s more!

Apart from the environmental cost (huge mines in Chile etc for Lithium, and Bolivia for the huge extra demand for copper in the massive motors), there’s the real money what you’ll have to pay.  How so?

  • On both the Mini E website and elsewhere, Li-ion batteries have a lifetime of at most 3 years.
  • The metal is of course, recycleable, which is good.  It’ll have to be since there’s so little in the Earth’s crust (see above)!!!
  • But 3 years is when most UK buyers get a new car, if they are the type of people that can and do so.
  • This means that the second purchaser is lumbered with the immediate cost of a new battery!
  • And there’s the rub – the cost isn’t mentioned.  Anywhere.  The only similar cars are from AC Propulsion and are rare sports car types, not mass-production models.
  • But I can give you a clue to the cost.  Mobile phone battery ~ £8;  Laptop battery ~£30;  larger ~£3 per Wh.  The Mini E has a 35kWh battery therefore it costs ~£105,000.  Maybe half that as discount for quantity.  This is about right as the old technology (lead, cadmium etc) batteries on cars like the Prius or for normal fork-lift trucks cost tens of thousands of pounds.

So do you want to buy a second-hand car and immediately fork out at least 25 grand for the privelige of driving it for 3 years?

What’s the answer?

For mass transport, we need transport en-masse using old technologies like trams, trains etc (all electric, notice!)

For personal transport, we need the air-powered car or something similar.

  • It uses a lightweight alloy engine powered by air, which can be “supercharged” by preheating using external combustion of a small amount of fuel.  This heats the vehicle in winter also.
  • It consumes ~20p of standard electricity to compress the air!
  • It uses 2litres of petrol
  • Range is ~130miles
  • 3,4,5,6 seats!
  • Weighs about half a tonne!

In short, it uses conventional technology and materials in a novel way.

This is totally different to all battery and hydrogen powered cars which use new, untried (and dangerous) techology in a conventional way! (They’re even thinking of liquid sodium…gad.)

So we must totally ignore the blinkered plans from one-dimensional thinkers sat in the design offices of the major car companies.  Barack Obama has said as much today. Obama vows aid for car industry.   He said;

“As part of our economic recovery package what you will see coming out of my administration right at the centre is a strong set of financial regulations which banks, ratings agencies, mortgage brokers, a whole bunch of folks (will) start having to be much more accountable and behave much more responsibly.”

The “folks” he refers to, are the big three car makers, GM, Ford and Chrysler.

Personally I think the big three chiefs who had that embarrassing encounter in congress, should pop straight over to Guy Negre and beg for a licence to make a $100 million factory to make his cars.  Remember, they are losing $5billion a month anyway – what have they to lose?

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  1. David :

    Jun 15, 2009 6:06 pm |

    Okay, we get it. You don’t want there to be any battery powered cars on this planet. I agree – long term. Now, there are not really any better choices on the road.

    As for your math – the batteries require about 2 kilograms of lithium per KW, so it is only 70 Kg for the MINI E.

    Wind is not the only source of energy, how about solar? I make enough at my house every day to charge up both my electric cars and cover all my other electricity needs. How about you?



  2. Strangely( author ) :

    Jun 15, 2009 8:50 pm |


    Crikey. It was yonks ago when I wrote that. Thanks for specifying the actual quantity of Lithium used in the batteries for the car. My initial sum was a back-of-fag-packet calculation. However, the point still holds. There are only 35MT of the stuff in the Earth and probably, only about half of that can be extracted. It’s a very polluting process that’s ruining swathes of Bolivia with the current (small) demands of phone & laptop batteries… Someone, one day, will have to pay for this devastation. Maybe sooner. Also, as the dynamics of supply and demand kick in, the cost of batteries using lithium will inevitably increase. What is now a pricey vehicle will become very expensive.

    In the UK where I live, renewable energy usage is all talk, and for transport, what talk there is, is mainly concentrated on electric vehicles. It’s the be-all and end-all of the argument because people don’t think out of the box.

    To answer your question, my finances won’t cover the cost of an electric car, but I wouldn’t want one anyway, not with the current design. However, I’ve had my name down for three years now for an air powered car from Guy Negre’s design. These are small and light and use a minimum of the earth’s resources in their manufacture. Cost in the UK will be ~£7k which I can afford. Their primary energy source (after the sun, etc) is still electricity, but instead of storing it as transportable chemical energy, it’s stored as the transportable potential energy of pressurised air. There’s a lot of stasis in the motor industry which has until now hindered any take-up of manufacture of this vehicle type. Perhaps the catastrophe such as the collapse of GM etc will be the catalyst? I hope so. The financial disparity in R&D investment between air-powered c.f. conventional fossil fuel and now battery power vehicles, is staggering. With proper finance, the cute air powered prototypes will not be so laughable and easily ridiculed by macho men in their 4x4s. It’s a perception thing, all driven by marketting. A Simpson’s episode from the 90s picked up on this (Canyonero, Canyonero).

    I may consider an electric car with a different type of, or better, cell. Since I wrote the piece, Lithium has been engineered to be used in better and safer ways. However, the battery of cells still comprises a sizable part of the overall mass of the vehicle and is totally inappropriate for heavy haulage, let alone a little 2-seater runabout.

    When I drove artics for a living, my tractor unit weighed ~6.5T and was capable of towing an all-up weight of 38T (legally, it’s gone up in the UK since to 40T on five axles, 44T on six axles) which meant a 24T goods payload for me at that time. Only barges (ships) followed by trains have a better payload to empty weight ratio, so for the foreseeable future most bulk goods delivery to the end consumer will be by road. A battery of cells to push 40T at 90kph on a similar design ratio to the Mini E is obviously out of the question.

    The air-powered car on the other hand is scalable in the same way as the internal combustion engine for a variety of vehicle sizes. Considering it’s short period of development (at a time when petrol has been king), I think it has a lot of potential using current materials and technology. For instance, it uses a lot of aerospace technology that is found on my Trek bicycle that I use for commuting to work. e.g. light alloys, carbon fibre, kevlar, high tensile stainless steels, composite plastics…

    For 95% of the UK, the Mini E is just too expensive and too impractical. You can afford one, but that’s just you. As a transport solution, it needs many decades probably of development to get it anywhere near the modern engine/vehicle combo. In many respects, it’s design efficiency is like the wonderful Saturn V rocket where most of the vehicle is engine and fuel! AS I read it, the battery needs replacing after a few years anyway and I pointed out the pitfalls with resale value.

    There has to be a better way.

    Shell pulled out of what would’ve been the biggest windfarm on the Earth in sea off Britain last year. And since 1863, the plans for a barrage across the second-highest tides on the Earth have come and gone many times. I watch these tides daily as I walk my dog down the River Parrett… It’s a complete waste (the non-usage of the tides, not the dog walking!) This is an example of the talk and actions that get stultified by other concerns.

    The US, especially the central, hot, under-populated area is ideal for solar energy production. Swathes of Africa and Asia are the same. The trick, as I see it, is investing in a new electric grid to transport the power to where people live. So you are fortunate in your land. You have pots of sun. In the UK, solar=not so good. ( For me, although I’d love a system, it’s not cost-effective for me. I guess it’s the economies of scale in manufacture, and for that, we really need governmental ‘encouragement’ and/or investment. For instance, the tax breaks and financial assistance to the nuclear industry are phenomenal – and guaranteed. When a private company can’t make a go of it, in comes the taxpayer to prop them up. This applies especially to the ongoing centuries-long costs of clean-up, which for some reason are quietly forgotten in the economic argument… )
    However, the UK gets the solar energy for the whole North Atlantic Ocean as it is coverted into the kinetic energy of waves which batter our western coasts – again, where not many folk live. So for the UK, the same trick is needed – investing in a better grid to transport electric power from where the energy is to where the people live. (There have been some really good recent developments in this field in the UK, so there’s hope yet. They’ve spent ~£30m on it – wow! c.f. nuclear energy research £5billion)

    In deserts, it doesn’t get cloudy, but it does get dark at night… People say this is a failing of renewables, that is, the diurnal and other variablity of renewable and solar-type energy sources. However, Britain has used one good answer for several decades now.
    The answer is to pump water up a hill and let it flow out by gravity when you need it. Dinorwic is a prime example where 1.8GW can be switched on in 16secs! If such a system was repeated in the many sparsely populated highland valleys of the UK, that would be the UK sitting fine and dandy, independant of any foreign energy supplier. How many valleys? I haven’t worked it out, but we have enough. The UK also has quite a few estuaries and bays that could be used as energy storage using polders as well as for generation. Severn, The Wash, The Thames, Morecambe Bay. There are plenty of places to store energy as the potential energy of pumped storage in the UK.

    The current state of micro-power generation (c.f. to the large-scale things I mentioned above) is generally deemed to be not cost-effective. Things like 1m wind turbines and solar panels for houses. This is what I’ve found also. However, the UK is awash with massive warehouses and Distribution Centres for supermarkets and the like, all generally having almost flat rooves. This is acres and acres of readily accessible roofspace crying out for a goverment edict to be covered in cheap, yet low efficiency photo-voltaics. (I’m thinking of the flexible photo-cells that can bend to any surface. They are two orders of magnitude cheaper than high O/P cells with one order of magnitude less O/P.)It’s an economies of scale combined with legal pressure thing again. This is a huge energy resource going to waste. Something like this would force down the cost for the average homeowner, and make it feasible to install on our widely different roof types. (My house has a highly pitched tiled roof on a 3-storey Edwardian building. As a town house it’s unsuitable for virtually every conversion I’ve considered, although being a town house, my transport costs are low).

    The technology isn’t the problem. We have enough knowledge as a species to solve this. The problem is the overall lack of willpower for change. I see the MiniE as a quirky demo thing for the well-off. It’s not a solution for the masses and is a technological dead end currently. The battery (electric storage) technology may get better, but it has to be several orders of magnitude better, not incremental as it currently is. It’s an advertisers dream fuelled by politicians ignorant of current technologies. The most efficient vehicles are the lightest compared to their payload. 747 jet – that’s pretty efficient. But it wouldn’t get off the ground with a battery (or an air-powered engine either for that matter). So it’s horses for courses obviously and things can’t be compared in that way. But personal transport, in principle, needs to be a lot lighter; not heavier and faster and heavier and faster as is the current trend.

    Thanks for your input,