Tesla and others are trying to phase out the usage of rare earth metals in future electric vehicle (EV) motors, with automakers in the United States, Europe, and Japan all considering the move to lessen reliance on China.
Earlier this year, Tesla's Vice President of Powertrain Engineering Colin Campbell said that the company's next-generation powertrain would incorporate a permanent magnet motor containing no rare earth metals. According to a recent Reuters story, automakers such as General Motors (GM), Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), Nissan, and others, as well as the supplier BorgWarner, are creating, studying, or have already built motors with low- or zero-rare earth minerals.
Image from X-Tesla
Nissan has extended its efforts in the creation of new magnet-free externally excited synchronous machine (EESM) motors, which use an electrical current to create a magnetic field, a step farther than previously reported. Through EESM development and the usage of permanent magnet motors, the Japanese automaker hopes to eventually eliminate the use of rare earth metals entirely. Nissan is also using an EESM motor in the Ariya crossover.
“This is an important contribution to making us a little more independent of China,” said Otmar Scharrer, CTO of German supplier ZF.
ZF has developed an EESM motor that, according to Scharrer, has comparable performance and overall size to permanent magnet motors.
China currently dominates the processing and mining of the 17 minerals known as rare earth metals, and many have warned against relying too heavily on the country — particularly after the government announced a recent export ban on gallium and graphite, both of which are critical for EV production.
There are other environmental reasons to avoid using certain minerals, as well as those associated to bolstering individual market supply chains. Other rare earth elements, such as neodymium and dysprosium, necessitate the use of solvents and produce hazardous waste, which contradicts existing environmental norms and aims.
Drive System Design, based in Detroit, is working with three separate manufacturers on motors free of rare earth metals, and the firm's Director of Engineering Business Development, Ben Chiswick, emphasizes the environmental benefits of the change.
“If you get it right, you’ve got a much more sustainable product,” Chaswick said.
BMW has reportedly conducted several years of research into motors without rare earth materials.
“It was not a home run… but it works very well without rare earths,” said Uwe Deuke, BMW’s lead engineer for the EESM motor being developed for its next-generation vehicle.
Even manufacturers that aren't completely eliminating rare earths are drastically lowering their content in prospective EV designs. Mercedes-Benz, for example, will utilize almost no heavy rare earth materials in its next-generation EV, despite the fact that it will still have a permanent magnet motor that contains a small amount of the minerals.
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