Pontifications: Total life cycle impacts missing from nearly all ecoAviation discussion

By Scott Hamilton

Oct. 10, 2022, © Leeham News: Batteries are the best thing for the new generation of clean airplanes. Or so say those promoting the concept.

However, few talk about the total life cycle of the concepts, whether eVTOL, hybrid-battery aircraft or pure battery airplanes.

And there’s the rub. Batteries may be clean in operation. But they are far from being a panacea for life-cycle clean aviation.

Some acknowledge that the power source for charging batteries could be an eco-issue. Others acknowledge that recycling batteries is an issue. A few acknowledge that today’s batteries don’t last very long—they must be replaced every 1,000 to 2,000 flights, depending on usage and other factors.

But so far, the real skunk at the lawn party is the fact that mining lithium, a key chemical for long-lasting batteries, is strip-mining, one of the most environmentally damaging methods of extracting anything from the earth.

Total life cycle

“When you start evaluating all of these options, you have to actually do what they call a lifecycle assessment,” says Graham Webb, the Chief Sustainability Officer for Pratt & Whitney. “You have to understand all of the environmental implications from the time you’re ripping the raw materials out of the ground until you’re actually disposing of the product at the end of its lifecycle.

“When you do those calculations, you need to see that in the end, you’re doing better than what is your alternatives. In the case of lithium batteries, not all of the lithium is made by strip mining. But China, in particular, a very large supplier of lithium, that is the predominant mode of mineral extraction.”

Webb said that some companies, such as Tesla, are discussing with Texas putting a lithium refinery in an area that enables them to have a bit more vertical control over all the economics. This includes the environmental implications of what they’re doing with their batteries.

“But it’s a challenge and it’s really admitted that all of these, shall we say ‘solutions,’ whether it’s lithium on the battery side, or let’s talk hydrogen, require life cycle assessments,” Webb said. For hydrogen, he added, 95% or more of the hydrogen that’s generated today is made by steam reforming of methane. The lifecycle assessment of those fuels is currently worse than the alternative, which is jet fuel kerosene.

Avoiding the life cycle

Most of the companies talking about battery-power airplanes, eVTOLs, or Air Mobility Aircraft (AAM) avoid talking about the extraction of the chemicals. They don’t talk about recycling, let alone talking about compliance with Federal Air Regulations. Nor do they talk about batteries having to be replaced after 2,000 flights, and what you do with the batteries you take out.

Either all of these companies that are talking about this stuff without talking about the life cycle are conveniently ignoring the life cycle realities.


Webb is more charitable.

“It could be there’s a little ignorance as well. In some cases,” he said. “They get so focused on the end state of making a battery-powered aircraft fly and considering that to be, shall we say emissions-free, which I’ve heard some of them state. But in the end, it is not just the batteries. Recharging the batteries comes from the grid. The grid isn’t always grained, and in assets, you’ve got emissions that are associated with recharging those batteries.

“They don’t always speak to those implications,” Webb said. “But certainly, people are becoming increasingly aware of those implications and they’re bringing that forward to those folks to make sure that they’re being addressed as part of the overall equation of how these products are coming into the market.”

Hydrogen isn’t totally clean, either

Some point to hydrogen as the better alternative to batteries. Certainly, as a fuel, it is easier to get the power required for flight from hydrogen than it is from batteries. But there are significant design-integration challenges for an airplane to use hydrogen. And the infrastructure, from production to fueling, is vast.

More to the point for green fuel advocates, hydrogen isn’t a panacea. Research still is needed to understand the impacts of contrails emitted from hydrogen.

“When we start talking about contrails, contrails in terms of the current theory are generated from water vapor and the exhaust of the gas turbine engines,” Webb said. “Kerosene has water, and it makes contrails we’re well aware of that. Hydrogen has 250% more water vapor present in its exhaust. If you start talking about something that has 250% more water vapor, that’s where the concern comes to rise. The other element of where the research needs to be done is how contrails are formed. That’s where the science is lacking.”

Webb continued, “How do you avoid contrails, which some of our scientists are showing that they’re actually equal to, if not worse than, the implications of carbon dioxide from aviation and climate impact? That’s where you see the testing that Airbus is going to be conducting with our competitor’s engine. They’re going to go and determine whether or not hydrogen does generate contrails and what the mechanisms are so that there’s a better understanding. Then, of course, that understanding would drive avoidance or methods to prevent them from forming.”


As air transport is only two to three percent of the total problem, what air transport does do will have little climate impact. Let’s hope the intense focus and research aviation is doing on the subject will benefit more sectors of society. Otherwise the money and resources could be better invested in fields with higher climate impact.


44 Comments on “Pontifications: Total life cycle impacts missing from nearly all ecoAviation discussion

  1. I believe we are deep down all green fuel advocates. No one with at least half a brain cell these days will deny the impact fossil fuels have on environment.

    That said, there’s tons of green wishing & washing, face saving & selective analytics going going on. Agree with Scott, I hope the current energy crisis helps realism and smart investment in this area.

    In terms of real energy sources we are totally dependent on gas, coal & oil today. (IMO close to criminal) miss-informing of the public is going on, pushed by large industries and interest groups.


    • The real hitch is that all (non fossil) alternative solutions introduced ( discussion, reality ) all carry their own major downsides. There are no “duh, simple! Just do …. ” solutions around.
      But we seem to have a knack to go the Duh simple path and discover the environmental blowback in (late) retrospect.
      too many “religiously” oriented voices around.

  2. “But China, in particular, a very large supplier of lithium, that is the predominant mode of mineral extraction.”

    That is not quite correct. IMU China is third in production
    and like the producers in Latin America mostly doing brine leeching. ( which is a massive drain on fresh water )

    Biggest by far producer currently is Australia @55.000t

    • Yes. The major miners for rare earths sent the ore or ‘concentrate’ to China for final processing
      The worlds largest rare earth mine is in the US – but may be still mothballed.
      Chile ( maybe Bolivia as well) , Australia are known large reserves of minable lithium

      The ‘strip mine’ comparison is a bit unfair as thats exactly how bauxite the ore of aluminium is mined. Of course other major minerals are mostly mined by open cast or strip mining too. Iron , coal etc

  3. It is not easy, but many powerplants cannot run at “full stream” because of network limitations that matches consumption with production and transmission capabilities, hence letting different powerplants run at full steam and just feed the grid what it wants and use the rest for SAF (like putting hydrogen into natural/bio gas networks) will improve the situation. You might need investments to increase max power like from a hydro power station not having to let water bypass during spring. Some nuclear powerplants can run at higher power constantly and today is limited in power output due to grid limitations and generator system rotating mass limitations in some regions. Even windmills at sea could be deigned for +25 m/s wind speed and produce max power and just send a few % to the grid and the remaining power for H2 production. Still it cannot be solved in a year but with clear goals, licenses and approvals and stable prices it can be a good step on the way.

    • “Some nuclear powerplants can run at higher power constantly and today is limited in power output due to grid limitations and generator system rotating mass limitations in some regions.”

      Please riddle me that!

      “Even windmills at sea could be deigned for +25 m/s wind speed and produce max power and just send a few % to the grid and the remaining power for H2 production.”

      windmills in general are designed for best over all energy harvest. expand at the top, lose (more) at the bottom.

  4. There are no contrails produced by LH2 fuel-cell powered electric propulsion, and Airbus is also examining that concept, in addition to gas turbine propulsion.
    Bjorn’s recent series demonstrated that fuel cell propulsion was viable for shorthaul use — in theory, at least.

    • I thought his series showed it was LH2 powered turbines that made the most sense for short haul in the next few decades
      Fuel cells were ahead of batteries but still way behind. And even then its really the ‘short shorthaul’ done by turboprops ( not the 1 -3 hrs that most jet short haul covers)

      • Turbines still have the upper hand in terms of efficiency.
        However, Bjorn’s series did discuss contrails and nitrogenous emissions, and fuel cells / electric motors are the only way to get rid of those.
        At least 2 consortiums are currently pursuing ATR-based fuel cell propulsion.

        • https://leehamnews.com/2022/06/10/bjorns-corner-sustainable-air-transport-part-23-fuel-cell-based-70-seat-airliner/
          The possible solutions mentioned here on allow a big payload and range reduction for a ATR-72 sized turboprop
          A clean sheet design seems to require a lot of time, development and money when the market for TP is not large, and the airfares on them already higher for the shorter distances they fly.
          Contrails arent the issue for turboprops as I dont think they fly high enough.
          Trying to solve all the issues at the same time is futile

          • Don’t shoot the messenger.
            The article above makes a meal of contrails…and turboprops can certainly leave contrails — plenty of 1940s/1950s photos show these in abundance.
            Then there’s still the issue of NOx.

          • They can. But they normally dont go as high as even an short haul jet and nothing like the altitudes of long haul airliners. Thats where contrail conditions are mostly found, above 30,000 ft. And not all jet flights produce them either as the conditions arent right.
            The cumulative effect is the number of contrails ‘goes away’

  5. ALL infrastructure has life cycle impacts.
    That also applies to new railways and roads, for example. In that respect (lack of route infrastructure), aviation is much greener than the common narrative likes to suggest.

    Glad to see that the drawbacks of batteries are getting more and more attention. It won’t be long before old BEVs start producing veritable mountains of EOL batteries…and, contrary to the pep talk, there are no meaningful recycling facilities in the pipeline.

    • There is no standard chemistry for Lithium batteries – there are many different types and they are constantly evolving.
      The chemistry is complex and any recycling plant would be a massive capital investment – one that would be assessed as very risky by financiers as advances in technology could effectively leave such plants stranded long before they have generated any return on investment.
      The lack of current or planned recycling facilities seems to confirm this.
      I don’t see this situation changing in the near to mid term.

  6. It’s not just lithium and cobalt, either. Silver, platinum, copper, manganese, you name it, the cooling/electrical connections need a LOT of precious earth metals. Separating them at end of life with what is still a liquid electrolyte is just painfully complex/difficult/dirty.

    Properly contextualized/studied with other factors included I think good old Jet-A is probably no where near as ‘dirty’ by comparison to a lot of the ‘green’ ideals/hopes/dreams of people who are bad at math/analyses realize.

    • “Properly contextualized/studied with other factors included I think good old Jet-A is probably no where near as ‘dirty’ by comparison to a lot of the ‘green’ ideals/hopes/dreams of people who are bad at math/analyses realize.”

      Indeed…particularly in view of the fact that the gas turbines on planes are super-efficient compared to cars, and the fact that planes don’t need concrete/steel route infrastructure.

  7. When you look at it, oil/gas extraction (done right) has minimal environmental impact.

    The old much hated smoky diesel now runs clean as a whistle (sulfur removed, DOCs/Ammonia Injection and Stack cleaners as needed as well as electronic controls to fuel injection).

    Natural Gas is clean, rates zero when compared to coal with its (strip mining) horrid emissions and the never to be rid of ash.

    Nuclear power done right (design of the plant (don’t put the backup power systems in the basement) ( and recycle the rods) looks really good as well.

    • All valid remarks — though I doubt that Greta would ever admit that 🤔

      Makes you wonder if industrial-scale carbon capture is a better solution than migration to “green” fuels.

      Nuclear — with new Thorium tech — is our salvation here, but it will be a tough task to overcome entrenched (and outdated) opposition by activists.

      • I think the world will likely end up settling that way. We are debating what to do with a small RJ and come up with imperfect solutions, and probably will for awhile. We’re nowhere near replacing say a 777 with an alternative power plant, so at some point it becomes a necessity because of peak oil, but just reducing emissions won’t meet our goals. Likewise we can reference last weeks fleet article to see that usage will explode over the coming decades, and I don’t see a viable alternative outside of lifestyle decreases or carbon capture that gets the trend reversing. Also agree we need to stop vilifying nuclear, it’s the only carbon free stable source we have.

        • If you think about it further, Natural Gas also makes a dandy vehicle fuel.

          So you avoid the issues of refineries and the energy they use to turn oil into gasoline and diesel.

          Its not viable for aircraft any more than hydrogen, but if you can alleviate other huge costs then the aircraft are not a major issue.

          Large ships can also use it (they can use some space existing for the tanks). Natural gas carriers do use it.

    • @ Transworld – That is a big ‘if’. Gas pipelines leak. And for most oil extraction operations this ‘minimal impact’ is not true anymore. For oil the life cycle energy investment before you have a good fuel are now easily 10%, more if you extract it from sea with big oil platforms.

      • Exclude tar sands , but ground impact is minimal. Since the world uses a lot of petro- fossil fuels its cumulatively large. Even then they have reduced inefficiencies by upping the scale. Super tankers, big gas pipelines driven by efficient gas turbine compressors. The dreaded fracking- horizontal drilling means no longer a forest of drilling wells above ground.

        If you have ever visited an old gold mining town and seen the photos of destruction when the mine , crushing batteries and cyanide plants in operation. All the life has mostly grown back now. The cycle of life continues over centuries

        • Atflyer:

          A pipeline leak is cut off quickly. The US has (or had) legislation that mandated recovery or prevention of gas leaks. Gas leaks in the whole are low impact and can be corrected.

          All transport types have risk and the oil pipeline breaks in the us are (or should be) legendary. We can add in the Exon Valdez and Torrey Canyon.

    • Yes, absent HUGE improvements in kWh/kg for battery packs (there is no basis for expecting this in the foreseeable future), the whole thing is niche only and barely that. People will keep having unrealistic hopes and visions but reality will assert itself.

      Commercial aviation CO2 output is quite small relative to its value* (utility as economists say). If you want to reduce CO2 production from human activities the first order has been and remains reducing the burning of coal for electricity generation (and some other purposes). Oil and natural gas follow in that order. The imagined benefits of electric aviation are vanishingly small by comparison.

      *Not so true of private and even business class commercial unless you put high value on the desires of the rich.

      • “burning of coal for electricity generation”

        LNG derived from fracking has comparable environmental impact as burning lignite.

        and in that domain a LOT more Methane is escaping into the atmosphere than previously assumed/reported.

      • If you can offset the cost of burning Jet Fuel (kerosene) with other measures (natural gas) then you can life with a miner affect from aircraft.

        You keep working on their emissions. Low Sulfur jet fuel would go some ways to lowering pollution. Not all by any means, but some.

        You don’t have to have a magic bullet solution. You can get there with an overall approach that takes what you can get where you can get it while you work on the solutions.

        So natural gas does not work for aircraft, but it has a massive upside when replacing coal plans or even diesel fueled plants.

      • @ Dan F ‘Commercial aviation CO2 output is quite small relative to its value* (utility as economists say)’

        The coming problem, that the Airline industry is very well aware of, is statistical. As other sectors such as electricity (and particularity land transport) continue to reduce their emissions, Aviation increasingly becomes the elephant in the room, and one with no cheap or easy solutions.

        And I’m sure many would debate the true value/utility of discretionary leisure travel that makes up the bulk of airline flights. Flight shaming has barely begun.

        • “As other sectors such as electricity (and particularity land transport) continue to reduce their emissions, Aviation increasingly becomes the elephant in the room, and one with no cheap or easy solutions.”

          Aviation has been decreasing its emissions for years, and is still doing so: each new generation of commercial aircraft is 10-20% more fuel-economical than the previous one. We’re now down to 2L per 100km per seat — compare that to cars. And don’t forget to factor in the emissions associated with the construction, upgrade and maintenance of roads and rails.

          • Aviation still has the problem of marginal and increasingly expensive gains, and most of the easy wins have already been taken as you point out.

            Fuel efficiency doesn’t have much relevance, when cars and other land modes can be fully powered by low carbon electric, and save on cost at the same time. As Bjorn has explored, the opportunity for Avaition to do the same is very limited. Bio or e-fuel will be much more expensive, with a consequent impact on competitiveness.

            Infrastructure emissions are marginal on a whole life basis, for all modes. It’s really not a good argument; I wouldn’t use it unless I didn’t have anything else.

            So I have to conclude that in a net-zero world, aviation will increasingly struggle to compete, on cost, with the alternatives, where they are available.

          • “…when cars and other land modes can be fully powered by low carbon electric…”

            When you facton in the processes needed for battery production and recycling, there’s not much “low carbon” about BEVs…

          • “carbon free or not.”

            quality wise this is true. traces of carbon are difficult to avoid.

            quantity wise things are quite a bit different.

            ( In the power station domain detractors used to argue for multi year running needs to reclaim energy used for creation. … which was (patently) wrong )

            Then this is a technical domain not religious.
            virginity aspects like “zero Carbon” have no value.
            Value is in overall (reduction of) emissions.

  8. Just to illustrate what the aviation industry is up against — when Airbus tweeted today that it had delivered 55 aircraft in September, it received the following tweet as a reaction:

    “Very bad news for us, for Toulouse, for our planet. That’s only pollutions and noise. Climate breakdown.
    Stop that. We do not want your dirty planes anymore. 😠”

    One wonders to what extent the person behind this tweet is aware (or wants to be aware) of the fact that modern aircraft only burn about 2L of fuel per 100km per seat? And/or that empty road trucks (returning without a load) are clocking up tens of billions of kilometers per year worldwide?

  9. To the embarrassment and everlasting shame of its advocates, lockdown theory turned out to be Mass Formation Psychosis. So too, in the fullness of time it will be shown that this “green agenda” is.

    All this fluff about ‘lectric aircraft and battery density is a distraction from what is actually going on here; what is actually being strip mined is your critical thinking and then, your rights and ability to fly where you want, when you want.

    “Journalists” (are there any left?), ought to pay less attention to these nonsense “fin-de-bubble” projects and more to the legislative moves that are currently being laid down to bring this about. Given their contribution to and the role they played in the 2020=2022 MFP I hold out little hope here.

    • “your rights and ability to fly where you want, when you want.”

      In our “Fussgaengerzone” we had signposts saying:

      Sensible people don’t ride their pushbike here
      for those others it is forbidden.

      i.e if you desire to be irresponsible others have to contain you.

      • There is a balance of what aircraft support and leverage for business and the impact on the environment.

        Aircraft are not the huge problem. The US was the first in the world to deal with this problem. The approach was the high end creators (auto).

        While there were issues with the tech, two gens of emissions latter we had computer controlled system and Fuel Injection. In some cities the exhaust is cleaner than the air that went in.

        Then diesel engines were tackled. Highway diesels first as those were the big creators. It also was a benign environment compared to construction machinery.

        The last generator I worked on (off road classification) was a Tier 2. Backup power does not cause much pollution and did not have to be Tier 4 but it did have to be improved over Tier 0.

        Early diesels and emissions had the same problem as gasoline. Not reliable, cost fuel economy etc. But they kept working at it as the Tiers were laid out they had to meet.

        Its been a multi application solution. Some of it is EGR, some DOC, some Ammonia Injection and some soot collectors.

        What they had in common was a laid out plan and a specified term to meet it not an instant magic bullet.

        Now we have clean diesels and we still get our food deliveries.

  10. “if you desire to be irresponsible others have to contain you”

    …and there you have it.

    • Fastship:

      EPA in the US and now all the gasoline engine and diesel engine mfgs are fully on board and brag about how clean their stuff is.

      • Were those engine and diesel engine mfgs fully on board when stricter emission regulations came on the table, or were the lobbying against them? Or have they forgotten..


  12. @ Bryce ‘When you facton in the processes needed for battery production and recycling, there’s not much “low carbon” about BEVs…’

    I agree, BEVs are far from perfect, but it’s still a big improvement over any form of combustion based tech, even when accounting for manufacture etc. Not all electrification requires batteries e.g. Trains.

    And don’t forget, that most industrial processes themselves can be electrified, thus reducing their footprint. This will happen perhaps sooner than we expect, because it will be cheaper, due to greater efficiency and elimination of fossil energy costs.

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