Electric car, fine particles and air pollution: what results?

Do electric cars emit less fines and air pollution than thermal cars? We take stock.

In relation to electric vehicles, many questions stir the public debate. Does an electric car emit less CO2 than a diesel or gasoline car? What are the environmental impacts of electric car batteries? Are electric vehicles not likely to cause electricity consumption to explode?

Naturally, some wonder to what extent the electric car contributes or not to air pollution and fine particulate emissions. A recent ADEME report sheds light on this issue. So, does the electric car emit fewer fine particles than a heat car? To what extent does it contribute to the reduction of air pollution and fine particulate emissions?

Electric vehicle: less fine particles, but not zero

By using a battery and an electric motor instead of a heat engine, the electric car has the advantage of avoiding a certain amount of pollution. We know that CO2 emissions, for example, are considerably reduced with the electric car compared to the thermal car. Thus, no greenhouse gases are emitted during the use phase. To be precise and factual, it should be noted that CO2 is emitted for the construction of the vehicle and its battery and the production of electricity, but overall, if we take all this into account, the greenhouse gas emissions of the electric vehicle are divided by 2 or 3 in France in relation to their thermal equivalent.

For fine particles, the electric car also has a clear advantage. Firstly, fine particulate emissions linked to the combustion of fossil fuels in the engine are obviously reduced to zero in the case of an electric vehicle. However, we cannot say that the electric car is “zero pollution”. In fact, the car, whether thermal or electric, causes pollution with fine particles due to the wear of the brake pads, the abrasion of the tires and the road. This pollution represents a little more than half of the fine particles emitted by a thermal vehicle.

For the electric car, these pollutions are slightly reduced, but not very strong. The regenerative braking system helps limit brake pad wear and associated emissions, but because electric cars are heavier and have wider tires, tire-related and abrasion-related emissions increase slightly compared to the thermal car. . On balance, the electric car does a little better than the thermal vehicle in this area: only 10-20% fewer particles.

Fewer secondary fine particles

The other advantage of the electric car in terms of air pollution compared to the thermal car is that it avoids the emission of a certain number of compounds that indirectly cause the formation of fine particles. This is what ADEME recalls in its report, when it writes that “thermal vehicles emit nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds that can contribute to the formation of secondary particles, which is not the case for electric vehicles”.

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Secondary particles form when gases present in the atmosphere solidify under certain atmospheric conditions, for example, in contact with raindrops. This phenomenon is called nucleation. The main gases that can be transformed into fine particles are sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and ammonia, which are emitted precisely by the combustion of fossil fuels in thermal engines.

Electric car, less polluting gases (NOx, CO…)

Finally, in addition to fine particles, the transition to the electric car also makes it possible to limit emissions of various polluting gases. In fact, in addition to CO2 and fine particles, the combustion of fossil fuels in thermal vehicles also causes emissions of various gases that are harmful to health and the environment. Among them, we find in particular carbon monoxide (CO), but also nitrogen oxides (NOx) which are toxic in addition to being precursors of secondary particles.

Obviously, the electric vehicle does not emit such gases during use. Thus, it avoids the emission of these harmful pollutants in traffic areas. And this is particularly important in urban spaces where the concentration of these gases can increase rapidly when the density of vehicles circulating is high and where populations are concentrated.

Overall, therefore, the electric car does not make it possible to avoid all polluting emissions and fine particles, but it does allow them to significantly reduce them. Even if the particulate emissions related to brake and tire wear and road abrasion are only slightly reduced with the electric car, the rest, in particular, all polluting and toxic particulates and gases related to the combustion of fossil fuels are avoided. The result is therefore clear: the electric vehicle makes it possible to significantly reduce air pollution.

Photo by Ivan Bogdanov on Unsplash

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