Shortage of Rare Metals for Hybrids Is Overblown

By · September 03, 2009

Toyota Could Gain Advantage

China is tightening its grip on its rare earth metals, which may derail production of hybrid and electric cars, according to The New York Times and Bloomberg. Hybrid cars use rare metals, especially neodymium for magnets in electric motors, and lanthanum in nickel metal hydride batteries.

Molycorp Mineral's Mountain Pass, Calif. Facility

A mineral facility in Mountain Pass, Calif., the richest rare earth deposit in the world, could supply all the necessary rare earth metals for hybrid and electric cars.

Prabhakar Patil, CEO of battery-maker Compact Power and former chief engineer of Ford’s hybrid program, sees the rare earth supply concern as “not very high,” when compared to other factors that could limit production of hybrids and electric cars. Patil believes that if supplies or prices for rare earth metals become an issue, car companies will work around a shortage by using induction motors and power electronics. He admits that there will be a penalty in terms of size, cost, and efficiency of motors. “But it is not a show stopper,” Patil told PluginCars.com.

Neodymium

Officials from Toyota, by far the biggest manufacturer of hybrid cars, believe rare earth materials are a concern, but not a major or immediate one. “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.”

Recent media reports also described the process of mining the rare earth metals as damaging to the environment. Hartline said, “Mining in any way, shape or form is never an environmentally friendly process. That’s the nature of the beast.” She said that Toyota is continually looking for sourcing and manufacturing processes that are less damaging to the environment.

Planning Required

Jack Lifton, an independent Michigan-based strategic metals expert, believes there could be “a gap” in hybrid and electric car production in the future—but only if new North American production of rare earth metals does not come on board as expected, and auto engineers fail to plan for a shift to magnets and motors that require fewer or no rare earth metals.

A mineral facility in Mountain Pass, Calif.—owned by Molycorp Mineral—is the richest rare earth deposit in the world, said Lifton. Molycorp and other North American mining companies stopped producing a decade ago, when China started supplying the metals at a cheaper price. If Molycorp, and other Canada-based companies, go back into production as planned, within three to four years, hybrid and electric car production will “not only be on track, it could be done in the United States,” said Lifton. Currently, nearly all hybrid components, such as batteries and motors, are manufactured in Asia.

There is a window of approximately five years, according to Lifton, before China’s planned use of neodymium for a range of products, especially wind turbines, could cut off automakers. At that point, “the electrification of motor cars will probably go on hold, but not for Toyota,” Lifton told HybridCars.com. “Toyota has been stockpiling. They’ve been buying. They’ve invested in a mine. Toyota will probably be okay.” He believes that Honda and Ford are also making necessary preparations, but that all other carmakers will have a difficult time with supplies needed for powerful motors required for hybrid and electric cars. “If you didn’t develop raw materials sourcing already, you’re done,” said Lifton.

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