All manufactured products have an embodied carbon footprint – the carbon emissions from their production and from the extraction of the materials required. Electric cars might have no emissions in operation, but they still have embodied carbon. Because of the metals in the battery, they can sometimes have slightly higher embodied carbon than their fossil fuel counterparts.
That’s no reason to think that electric vehicles are a waste of time. Unless you’re running it entirely on pure coal power, it will produce fewer emissions over the course of its lifetime, as well as less noise and air pollution. Still, to be truly sustainable, vehicle manufacturers need to address the emissions from production. This will become more important over time – once all vehicles are electric, embodied emissions might become the main source of emissions from cars.
I’ve written more about embodied carbon in cars here, but today I wanted to mention a specific example. Volta Trucks is a Swedish start-up, now based in the UK to tap into car manufacturing expertise. Their ambition is to create the world’s most sustainable truck, and they recently unveiled a 16 tonne urban delivery vehicle. In order to reduce the impact of manufacture, the truck uses panels made of flax.
Flax is a versatile plant, used to make linen, banknotes and many other things. Volta have combined it with biodegradeable resins to produce the bodywork for their electric trucks. It’s a material that was originally developed by the European Space Agency and is often used in motor racing. This is the first time it’s been used in a commercial vehicle – though not the first time designers have experimented with it, not the first time I’ve mentioned it on the blog. I wrote about cars made with flax in 2014 and 2017.
The flax replaces steel, with a major carbon saving in the process – it is “almost” carbon neutral over the course of its lifetime. The materials are grown rather than extracted, so it is a renewable resource. It is lightweight without compromising on strength. It’s also biodegradeable, though not under normal working conditions.
There’s also a nice example of biomimicry here, or drawing design inspiration from nature. One innovation that Volta have used is a system of ribbed reinforcements in the material, inspired by leaf veins. The ribs give it the same strength as carbon fibre panels, but without shattering dangerously as carbon fibre is prone to do when broken, and with a quarter of the carbon emissions.
It’s good to see flax panels move from experimental prototypes to a commercial vehicle, and to see a company that is thinking through the challenge of net zero from a variety of angles.
One other thing that’s also worth mentioning is that Volta are designing their vehicle not just to deliver low emissions, but to work in the context of a low carbon city. Founder Carl-Magnus Norden says that he wants their truck to be “a friend of the zero-emission city.” One aspect of a future city is a lot more walking and cycling, and so the truck has been designed with the safety of pedestrians and cyclists in mind.
This is quite an intriguing idea and I look forward to hearing how other manufacturers respond to the changing conditions of a low carbon city.