Japanese work to bypass dysprosium

Tear up those latest projections for supply-demand balances for rare earths. The Japanese have just moved the goal posts once again. There is breaking news from three large Japanese corporations – Mitsubishi, TDK and Toshiba – and they again demonstrate Japan‘s determination, led by new efforts headed by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, to step up research to develop magnets that are powerful and heat-resistant but using common materials rather than REE. The ministry plans to rope in automakers, magnet manufacturers, universities and public research institutions to help bring this off.

In its latest roundup, the Nikkei news service reports that Mitsubishi Electrical Corp has developed a motor for electric vehicles and other products that uses no rare earths at all. The report says Mitsubishi, working with the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), has come up with an automotive motor based on the principles of electromagnets – bypassing rare earth oxides. It concedes that the new motor is less efficient than conventional ones during acceleration but performs comparably after reaching what it calls stable speed.

This comes as Mitsubishi has signalled it plans to launch an electric light truck this year. Owners will be able to recharge the battery using normal household power outlets. Mitsubishi will be targeting farmers, contractors and others with this new vehicle. It sees this product as boosting its overall electric vehicle sales, and has set itself a 2012 sales goal of 42,000 worldwide, double those of the previous year. The new truck will go on the market at the local equivalent of $US19,200.

Mitsubishi is also working on its next generation Outlander SUV. It is expected that a hybrid version could be available in 2013.

Meanwhile, those who are following every development involving that key REE, dysprosium, will be interested to learn that TDK Corp has developed a dysprosium-free permanent magnet. The Nikkei says this has been achieved by changing the method of processing molecules. TDK sees the new magnet as providing the same strength as those products using dysprosium and intends having the product ready for use in automotive motors by 2014.

Another report from Tokyo says that Toshiba is also working to replace dysprosium from its magnet technology, but is not shunning REE altogether. Rather it plans to use samarium – a development that will please Molycorp and Lynas, both of which have samarium in their REE mines at Mountain Pass and Mt Weld respectively.