China holds about 70% of the market share in rare earth mining, threatening the economic security of many countries. Japanese manufacturers, however, are accelerating the development of alternative technologies to reduce the use of rare earths.
Companies such as Proterial (formerly Hitachi Metals) aim to replace magnets made from neodymium, a type of rare earth. Neodymium is currently the mainstream material for electric vehicle (EV) engines.
Proterial and other companies are now scrambling to commercialize their new technologies. They believe the need to reduce the use of neodymium will increase with the shift away from dependence on China.
Proterial's New Technology
Proterial has developed a "high-performance ferrite magnet" for EV engines. It believes this new magnetic material can replace neodymium in electric engines. Moreover, the company has already begun receiving inquiries and supplying samples to engine manufacturers.
How do they work? Ferrite magnets are primarily composed of iron and do not use rare earth minerals. This helps to reduce their cost. At the same time, the magnets' manufacturing method and placement within the engine were devised to ensure their maximum power output was as close as possible to that of engines using neodymium magnets.
More Magnetic Options In the Works
Global automotive parts manufacturer Denso has also developed an alternative. Theirs is an "iron-nickel superlattice magnet" that uses only iron and nickel as raw materials. Yet it has achieved an equal or superior performance to a neodymium magnet. Denso hopes to see the use of this magnet commercialized within several years.
In addition, Toshiba Corporation and Tohoku Gakuin University have developed a samarium-iron isotropic bonded magnet. By using samarium, a more readily available material, they have reduced the amount of neodymium required by half. Despite this reduction, the performance matches that of neodymium magnets.
Toshiba also expects to see this technology commercialized over the next several years.
New Rare Earth Alternatives Beyond Engines
The movement to reduce the use of rare earths is also advancing outside the field of engines. Toray Industries, Inc has developed "highly durable zirconia balls." The zirconia balls are used in the production of high-performance ceramics, including for use in electrode materials for lithium-ion batteries.
The company replaces rare earths, which are typically used as stabilizers, with other materials. Meanwhile, they have improved durability, reducing the frequency of replacement and otherwise lowering costs.
Going forward, the company intends to develop other applications, such as bearings. In this way, it hopes to use the zirconia balls to achieve sales of several billion Japanese yen by FY2030.
A Look at Rare Earth Minerals
There are a total of 17 types of rare earth elements. Their wide application has earned them the name of the "vitamins of industry."
In particular, the recognition of rare earths as a vital commodity has increased since the 2010 "rare earths crisis." That was when China effectively embargoed their shipment to Japan. Stable procurement has thus become recognized as an important issue.
Once again, the Chinese government is considering an embargo on technologies for manufacturing high-performance magnets using rare earths. Indeed, Beijing has demonstrated a tendency to use this global dependence on China as a means of economic intimidation. However, this behavior is also likely to accelerate the move of other countries to reduce their use of rare earths.
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(Read the article in Japanese.)
Author: Michito Ida