Japanese automaker Toyota has discovered a technique of cutting by 20% the quantities of rare earth metals used in magnets deployed in the motors of electric cars. This is likely to reduce the cost of electric car production as well as lower supply shortage risks.
The technology Toyota has developed involves reducing the amounts of rare earth metal neodymium in permanent batteries by turning to cerium and lanthanum which are more abundant and cheaply available. These magnets are expected to be made available in the motors of electric vehicles in the next decade.
With the number of electric cars being produced expected to increase significantly in the future, carmakers as well as electronics firms have been undertaking the development of high-powered magnets that require lower quantities of rare earth metals in a bid to cut costs besides trimming exposure in case of supply fluctuations. Toyota projects a shortage of neodymium in the coming decade.
In 2010 China which is a major supplier of neodymium placed a temporary export ban on the rare earth mineral following a dispute over territory with Japan. China supplies over 80% of the rare earth metals used in the world. There have also been periodic supply shortages being witnessed in the recent past. Last year for instance saw the prices of neodymium rise by close to 30% in one month following a crackdown on illegal miners in China.
“An increase in electric car production will raise the need for motors, which will result in higher demand for neodymium down the line. If we continue to use neodymium at this pace we’ll eventually experience a supply shortage …” said Akira Kato, Toyota’s general project manager for advanced Research & Development.
Rare and expensive
Currently the composition of rare earth minerals such as dysprosium, terbium and neodymium in magnets that are present in the majority of hybrid and electric cars is about 30%. Car makers such as Honda have come up with ways of getting rid of terbium and dysprosium, which costs $900 and $400 per kilogram respectively, from magnets. Honda has achieved this by raising the quantities of neodymium used. Neodymium costs about $100 per kilogram.
Rival Japanese automaker Toyota has gone further than that and has not only eliminated the use of expensive metals in its magnets but has also cut the levels of neodymium by replacing it with cerium and lanthanum. The cost of the latter two is approximately between $5 and $7 per kilogram.