Automakers have principally relied on motors with uncommon earth-based everlasting magnets, which have been essentially the most environment friendly at offering the torque to energy EVs.
But various kinds of motors with out everlasting magnets that had been beforehand too massive and too inefficient, or these with greatly-reduced uncommon earth content material have turn into commercially viable, prompting the frenzy for options.
Market chief Tesla garnered headlines earlier this 12 months saying it will lower uncommon earths from its next-generation EVs.
But automakers from General Motors to Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) and main suppliers like BorgWarner are researching, or have developed, motors with low- to zero-rare earth content material resembling magnet-free externally excited synchronous machines (EESMs), which generate a magnetic discipline utilizing electrical present.
Others like Nissan are going additional than beforehand reported, with a twin technique to develop each newer EESM motors and likewise to develop everlasting magnet motors the place the uncommon earth content material will probably be regularly eradicated altogether.
China dominates the mining and processing of a bunch of 17 metals often called uncommon earths, although firms elsewhere are attempting to loosen China’s grip.
Recent Chinese restrictions on exports of gallium and graphite – which is important for EV manufacturing – highlighted the chance of over-reliance on China.
German provider ZF has developed an EESM motor that Chief Technology Officer Otmar Scharrer mentioned matches the dimensions and efficiency of everlasting magnet motors.
“This is an important contribution to making us a little more independent of China,” he mentioned.
ZF is in talks with U.S., European and Chinese automakers to provide the motor and may very well be in manufacturing mannequin EVs inside two years, Scharrer mentioned.
Aside from over-reliance on China, refining uncommon earths, resembling neodymium and dysprosium, includes solvents and poisonous waste that battle with sustainability targets.
“If you get it right, you’ve got a much more sustainable product,” Ben Chiswick, director of engineering enterprise growth at Detroit-based Drive System Design, which is creating uncommon earth-free motors with three automakers.
Some automakers, like BMW say they’re already there after years of analysis.
“It was not a home run… but it works very well without rare earths” mentioned Uwe Deuke, the engineer answerable for creating BMW’s EESM motor for its next-generation EVs.
‘WAITING IN THE WINGS’
The common EV everlasting magnet motor makes use of round 600 grams (1.32 lb) of heavy uncommon earth neodymium. Prices have fluctuated vastly for neodymium – at round $125/kg now, it’s down from a peak of round $223 final 12 months, however effectively above $65 in 2020.
Vitesco designed an EESM motor for Renault and has a brand new model coming in 2026. Gerd Roesel, innovation head on the German provider’s electrification division, mentioned uncommon earth-free options keep away from these wild worth swings.
Others like U.S. startup Niron Magnetics are creating everlasting magnets with out uncommon earths.
Tesla’s announcement on dropping uncommon earths “opened up buyers’ eyes to the fact that you don’t really need rare earths to make EV magnets,” Niron CEO Jonathan Rowntree mentioned.
Niron’s newest funding spherical included investments from GM and Stellantis.
Nissan makes use of an EESM motor in its Ariya crossover. Shunji Oki, skilled chief on the automaker’s powertrain and EV engineering division, mentioned Nissan is creating each higher EESM motors and everlasting magnets the place uncommon earths will probably be phased out.
James Edmondson, an analyst at consultancy IDTechEx, mentioned automakers rushed to discover options as uncommon earth costs rose, however now costs have fallen they’re watching China intently and ready to see if governments take motion that might curb using Chinese uncommon earths, because the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act did.
“This is why they (automakers) have other technologies waiting in the wings,” he mentioned.
IDTechEx forecasts that as of now rare-earth everlasting magnet motors will lose some international market share over the subsequent decade however nonetheless make up greater than 70% as Chinese EV makers face no strain to curtail their use – although their share will probably be a lot nearer to 50% in Europe, Edmondson mentioned.
And the place western automakers are sticking with rare-earth everlasting magnets, they’re working to dramatically scale back their content material, he added.
Mercedes-Benz’s next-generation EV platform, as an illustration, has nearly no heavy uncommon earth content material.
The problem additionally goes past motors.
In some EVs, round a 3rd of the uncommon earths used are within the sound system’s audio system. UK agency Warwick Acoustics has developed uncommon earth-free audio system which might be 90% lighter and extra vitality environment friendly than standard ones. It has signed up its first luxurious automaker buyer and is speaking to others, CEO Mike Grant mentioned.
“We’re fighting off people right now,” he mentioned.