For about two years, media reports have stirred fears about a possible shortage of rare-earth metals needed for hybrid and electric cars. According to these reports, a shortage could threaten future production of hybrids and EVs. Today, Bloomberg and others are reporting that Toyota is developing a workaround: development of inductive motors that don’t need rare-earth metals. These motors could also be lighter and more efficient than the magnet-type motor now used in hybrid cars, like the Toyota Prius.
In Sept. 2009, HybridCars.com revealed that concerns about a shortage were overblown—despite headlines in the New York Times, Bloomberg and other sources raising grave concerns about China’s tightening grip on rear earth metals, and how it could derail production of hybrid and electric cars.
Prabhakar Patil, CEO of battery-maker Compact Power and former chief engineer of Ford’s hybrid program, told HybridCars.com that rare earth supply concern was “not very high,” because car companies could make a transition to induction motors and power electronics. “It is not a show stopper,” Patil said.
In our report, officials from Toyota confirmed that a lack of rare earth materials was not a major or immediate concern. “This is something that we have to address as more manufacturing of electric vehicles and hybrids come on line,” said Jana Hartline Toyota’s environmental communication manager, in an interview with HybridCars.com. “Does that mean next week? No. It becomes a legitimate thing to consider when you talk about production in the order of millions over several years.”
Problems Becomes Opportunity
Bloomberg reported today that induction motors—not requiring rare earth metals—can offer higher efficiency and durability than permanent-magnet motors, according to Michael Duoba, a research engineer with Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne.
In addition, Takeshi Uchiyamada, Toyota’s executive vice president for research and product development, told Bloomberg that Toyota is developing efficient, cheaper, lighter motors, along with advanced batteries and power electronics, as electric propulsion becomes increasingly important to the company and the auto industry. In 2012, Toyota will sell the RAV4 EV compact sport-utility electric vehicle with an induction motor supplied by Tesla Motors. That battery, and the one used in the Tesla Roadster and future Model S sedan, use a similar motor without rare-earth materials.
This workaround makes news about China’s restrictions on rare earth metals less frightening than previously indicated. Nonetheless, U.S. representatives said they “are very concerned about China’s export restraints” and might register a complaint with the World Trade Organization. In late 2010, China blocked shipments of the minerals bound for Japan over an unrelated dispute over islands in the sea between the two countries.
Last month, China officially announced what it had previously indicated it would do—reduce rare earth exports by 10 percent during the first half of 2011. China currently accounts for about 97 percent of the world’s production of rare earth minerals, which are used in wind turbines and smart phones, as well as hybrid and electric cars.