There's a new Swiss report talking about battery powered hybrid vehicles. Apparently the actual supply of the metal and the power to process that metal is what costs the most. Extracting the lithium, and transporting materials, is not as significant a contributor. The Register reports that the study indicated an efficient diesel car would do less environmental damage than a battery powered hybrid, but you have to dig for that tidbit.
Most of the report is spent describing the environmental impact of manufacturing and transporting batteries, and how (naturally) batteries made from recycled materials or using hydropower to process rather than coal have a lower environmental impact (duh!). But here's the clincher:
A break even analysis shows that an ICEV would need to consume less than 3.9 L/100km to cause lower CED than a BEV or less than 2.6 L/100km to cause a lower EI99 H/A score. Consumptions in this range are achieved by some small and very efficient diesel ICEVs, for example, from Ford and Volkswagen (13, 39).
That's 78 and 90 mpg respectively for those of us in the states. As for the models the study mentions I'm not sure. Looks like Volkswagen has a 1.6L diesel TDI Golf that comes in around 80ish mpg highway available in Europe. But that's at the top end, using only a particular technology of theirs. Yeah it's there, and it's around the corner, but that's the efficiency necessary to beat a battery right now. Because even with not fantastic mileage, you're still getting less CO2 emissions. And we're not seeing those kinds of mpg numbers in the states anytime soon. Not to mention when it looked like diesels were coming over here in droves just not seeing that either. I guess Prius owners like to feel high and mighty about their choice just as much as non-Prius owners like to use battery manufacturing and disposal as excuses they are still doing the right thing. When in fact, best I can determine from the city, disposal between a hybrid with a lithium battery vs a "normal" car had near the same environmental impact. That could also be Europe's recycling requirements coming into play.
Still, both the report and the article (and the recent Cash for Clunkers bit of pork legislation) fail to get the obvious. It's generally environmentally friendlier to keep driving your old clunker around, even if it gets terrible gas mileage. The cost to manufacture a new car is no small thing. Buying new cars creates demand for more new cars. Even if these new cars use less petrol, you're often better off keeping your car a few more years, if being environmentally friendly is what's important to you.