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Japan-Update

Toyota unveils motor magnet with less scarce metal

Swapping other rare earths for neodymium could save money and prevent shortages

Rare earths make up nearly 30% of the elements in magnets used for motors in electric vehicles and hybrids, like the Toyota Prius pictured here.

NAGOYA -- Toyota has developed an electric vehicle motor magnet that uses half as much neodymium as compatible products, aiming to stave off supply disruptions in the rare-earth element that could come as major producer China toughens environmental regulations.

The Japanese automaker said Tuesday it had developed "the world's first neodymium-reduced, heat-resistant magnet." The plan is to commercialize the components for power steering motors by the first half of the 2020s and for electric vehicles within a decade, Toyota said.

Rare-earth metals make up nearly 30% of the elements in magnets used for electric vehicle and hybrid motors. The bulk of this is neodymium, which helps magnets withstand the high temperatures generated while driving. Toyota's new magnets replace some neodymium with the relatively cheap and abundant rare-earth metals cerium and lanthanum.

While this swap alone would normally degrade the magnets' performance, particularly under high heat, Toyota has also adopted technologies including a unique two-layered magnet structure to ensure the new magnets retain their magnetism and resist heat as well as those currently on the market.

Toyota has also eliminated dysprosium and terbium, two particularly scarce rare-earth elements, from the new magnet. The automaker is exploring technologies needed to mass-produce the magnet, and looks to begin talks with magnet makers aimed at commercializing the parts.

The motor of a Toyota Prius hybrid, which incorporates rare-earth magnets.

These innovations could both reduce magnet costs and make the market less dependent on China, which is said to produce over 80% of the world's neodymium. The supply of rare earths tends to shift as environmental regulations in that country change, creating uncertainty at a time when demand for those elements is set to rise with the popularity of electric vehicles. Even Toyota's most optimistic projections point to a neodymium shortage in 2025.

Commercializing sustainable and affordable magnets is essential to Toyota's overall sales strategy. The automaker targets sales of more than 5.5 million vehicles that use electric motors -- half the overall total -- by 2030, Executive Vice President Shigeki Terashi said last December when laying out the company's strategy concerning environmentally friendly autos. Hybrids are to account for 4.5 million of those vehicles, while fully electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are to make up the rest.

Rival Honda Motor is also working to reduce its dependence on rare earths to skirt supply-chain risks. The automaker uses in its hybrids neodymium magnets developed in cooperation with Daido Steel, which eliminate so-called heavy rare earths such as dysprosium and terbium. These were first introduced in the hybrid Freed minivan, and have since been incorporated into the compact Fit and Vezel sport utility vehicle. 

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