Over the years, China has managed to attain a virtual monopoly (97 percent is pretty close to everything) on the world’s rare earth elements – and has proved adept at making the most of that advantage by boosting up prices and freezing countries with competing interests out of the market
Why should we care? A lot of modern technology depends on rare earth elements. If you own a cell phone, flat screen television or laptop – you own one of a wide selection of products that require rare earths. Given the amount of rare earths involved, a hike in the prices of rare earths doesn’t have too much of an impact on the cost of such devices. But it does with bigger products, things like electric cars, which make use of powerful rare earth magnets in their motors.
The workaround for Dr. Nobukazu Hoshi and his colleagues at the Tokyo University of Science was to use something that they call a switched reluctance motor, which creates rotation by switching an electromagnet on and off. There are a few weaknesses in this method: It requires more energy, produces less torque and generates increased noise and vibration. But their achievement of a 50kW output in a motor that is totally free of rare earths indicates that their research is probably heading in the right direction.
Given Dr. Hoshi’s promising work and Toyota’s research into its own solution, it shouldn’t be too long before we start seeing rare earth free cars hitting the roads.