A rare-earth alternative

March 21, 2011 (Source: CB) — Neodymium, dysprosium and terbium will never enter the common lexicon, but these materials are vitally important in some parts of the world. They are rare–earth metals, used in a variety of electronics, from headphones to mobile phones. The problem is, China controls well over 90% of the world’s supply of all 17 rare–earth elements. For a single country, particularly one as authoritarian as China, to exert so much influence has made companies that rely on these materials very nervous.

Such fears may be misplaced, however. Various researchers are working to develop new materials that require much smaller quantities of rare–earth materials, and for some applications, such as wind turbines and electric vehicle motors, alternatives already exist.

This month, a handful of Japanese companies announced plans to invest a combined US$1.3 billion over the next year to develop ways of reducing the country’s consumption of 30,000 tons of such metals each year. The government is kicking in approximately $400 million in subsidies as well. The money will be used to improve production processes and expand recycling facilities. The U.S. government is also doling out cash. Last fall, the U.S. Department of Energy awarded $2.25 million to GE Global Research and another $4.5 million to the University of Delaware to create materials that require smaller amounts of rare–earth metals. Both projects are focusing on permanent magnets, which are primarily used in wind turbines and electric motors. A key component in these magnets is the rare earth neodymium, and the Department of Energy expects that demand for the metal will outstrip supply by around 2020.

That could be particularly problematic for GE, which not only manufactures turbines, but other products requiring rare–earth materials, such as jet engines, lighting fixtures and various health–care–related devices. The magnet project is just a first step, explains Steve Duclos, chief scientist and manager of materials sustainability at GE. “The goal is to change, at the nano scale, the structure of the material so that you need significantly less rare–earth material to make a magnet with as good or maybe even better magnetic properties,” he says. GE hopes to slash the amount of neodymium by 80% and prepare a sample of its new magnet within two years.

Vestas, the world’s largest wind–turbine manufacturer, has its own research underway, though the company declines to elaborate. “We’ll acknowledge that we’re looking at alternatives, but that’s as specific as we can get,” says Andrew Hilton, vice–president of communications.

Often, what’s lost in the furor around rare–earth metals is that they have not been essential to the growth of the wind industry so far. In fact, fewer than 1% of the turbines sold by Vestas use permanent magnets, which are a relatively recent development. The vast majority use more conventional means (a drive shaft and gearbox) to generate power. The permanent magnet variety can have advantages, such as better efficiency, but it is not necessarily essential to the future of the wind industry.

The same can be said for electric vehicles. Permanent magnet electric motors are currently in vogue, but AC Propulsion in California has been working on electric motors that don’t require rare–earth materials since 1992. The company’s technology is based on the induction motor invented by Nikola Tesla, and it has been used by BMW and licensed by Tesla Motors. Engineers pursued the permanent magnet variety because these motors were more slightly efficient in the lab, though achieving the same results in the real world has proven difficult. “Properly optimized, the differences between the two types are pretty small,” says AC Propulsion CEO Tom Gage. “Engineers were kind of seduced by the false promise of higher efficiency.” Even at the auto show in Detroit in January, Gage encountered industry insiders who were surprised to learn about the benefits of induction motors. And now in light of rare–earth supply concerns, automakers are reconsidering their options. Toyota, a large consumer of neodymium for its Prius hybrid, announced in January it’s working on an induction motor for future vehicles.

That’s not to say there won’t be a role for rare–earth metals, and the ability of alternatives to replace them on a large scale is still an open question, but China’s stranglehold over supply is looking less threatening.