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Toyota aims for 50 per cent reduction in rare-earth elements with new magnetic

Toyota aims for 50 per cent reduction in rare-earth elements with new magnetic

Rare-earth elements have proven to be a critical part of our technological advancements. The attributes they bring can change the way normal materials act, or enhance their attributes. They are vital parts of many different products, from hard drives to wind turbines, and even the screens for our tablets and smartphones. Neodymium is especially important in the production of magnets. Compounds containing neodymium allow smaller, more efficient magnets to be produced, which are then used in great numbers in motors, especially those for emerging markets such as renewable energy and electric vehicles.

The seventeen rare-earth elements are found in places and quantities that are difficult to mine economically, rather then being very rare. All, but promethium, are relatively common in the earth’s crust. They are generally concentrated together in a few locations, although not in concentrations high enough to be exploited easily. The current most important location for these elements is China, which produced 81% of the world's rare-earth supply in 2017. The importance of the materials to technology and the fact that one country has a virtual monopoly of the extraction of the elements means that China has de facto control over their supply to the world. This is something that China has used to its advantage by limiting exports, which drive up prices or force companies to relocate to access them on China’s internal market.

There have been many attempts to cut the use of rare-earth elements by producing materials with similar properties, but in the main these have not come to fruition. One company that believes it has made some progress is Toyota, who just announced that it has developed a magnet that remains heat resistant while reducing neodymium levels by almost half. The new development also eliminates the need for terbium or dysprosium, two other rare-earth materials. This would be a huge step in reducing the cost and reliance on rare-earth elements. Unfortunately, it’s not all good news - the technique developed by Toyota involves replacing some of the neodymium with two other rare-earth elements, lanthanum and cerium. However, these two materials are much lower cost.

Neodymium’s main property is helping retain high coercivity – the ability to maintain magnetism – and heat resistance. Swapping nearly half the neodymium with lanthanum and cerium would see a decline in the material’s performance, so Toyota has developed new techniques to stop that deterioration. The end result is that the magnet retains its heat resistance with a big drop in neodymium usage.

Toyota will continue with the development of the new material and expects it to be used in some applications, including electric power steering by 2025, and in electric vehicle drive motors by 2018.

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