Toyota Motor Corp. is striving to develop a new type of electric motor to escape a simmering trade conflict involving China’s grip on a rare mineral.
The Japanese auto maker believes it is near a breakthrough in developing electric motors for hybrid cars that eliminates the use of rare earth metals, whose prices have risen sharply in the past year as China restricted supply. The minerals are found in the magnets used in the motors.
All electric motors rely on magnets to make them work. The new motor Toyota is working on is based on the very common and inexpensive induction motor, found in such devices as kitchen mixers. Induction motors use electromagnets””magnets that only have their magnetic attraction when power is applied to them.
Most motors used in electric and hybrid cars today use a different type of motor that relies on permanent magnets. These magnets always have a magnetic field””akin to the magnets used to attach things to refrigerator doors.
But the permanent magnets found in electric-car motors, unlike those that hold up the school lunch menu, are made from neodymium, a rare-earth mineral that is almost entirely mined and refined in China.
As car companies race to improve electric and hybrid vehicles, their reliance on metals like neodymium and lithium””used in batteries found in electric and hybrid cars””is raising a host of new geopolitical issues over access to the minerals. The supply of many of these minerals is controlled by China.
Toyota has taken several steps to reduce its dependence on China for the materials, including investing in a lithium venture in Argentina and launching a joint venture in Vietnam to prospect for rare metals like neodymium.
The auto industry purchases 40% of the world’s supply of neodymium and Toyota buys more than any other company, said Jack Lifton, a rare earth materials expert and founder of Technology Metals Research in Carpentersville, Ill. There is about a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of neodymium in every Prius, he said. Toyota declined to comment on this figure.
“It would be a big change in demand for neodymium” if Toyota switched to an induction motor, said Mr. Lifton.
General Motors Co., which launched its Volt electric car last month, also is looking into alternative types of motors. “We have ongoing development in those areas and the induction motors do work,” said Pete Savagian, who leads GM’s hybrid powertrain engineering division.
Continental AG of Germany, one of the world’s largest auto parts makers, said it already has developed a rare-earth-free motor that will be used in an undisclosed electric car due out in Europe this year. This motor uses a variation of an electric motor often found in power plants.
Part of the rationale for developing this motor is to avoid rare earth metals, but it mostly is a move to lower costs, said Mike Crane, who runs Continental’s hybrid and electric vehicle programs.
“Even in the best scenario of supply, these [rare earth-based] magnets are very expensive,” Mr. Crane said.
China produces about 95% of the world’s supply of neodymium and last summer the country began restricting exports. In December, China announced a 67% increase in export tariffs on the metal and has declared new limits on exports this year.
Neodymium prices have quadrupled in the past year, according to Lynas Corp., an Australian company developing a giant mine and refinery for the material.
Rare earth minerals are a grouping of 17 chemically similar elements that are usually found together in ore and are refined and split apart. They are used in magnets and semiconductors and a host of other technologies. The U.S. and Australia have deposits of them but lack the expertise in extracting and refining the minerals.
For Toyota, getting around this barrier is crucial. The auto maker at this week’s Detroit car show announced the expansion of its hybrid-electric lineup by adding two new Prius variants and plans to spread the technology to all of its models in the next decade.
“The technology that would allow us not to use the magnets and yet to make a smaller size, high-performance motor will come soon,” said Takeshi Uchiyamada, Toyota’s global chief engineer.
European installations of offshore wind power may surge 70 percent this year, topping 2010′s record 51 percent gain, the European Wind Energy Association said.
This year is likely to have 1 gigawatt to 1.5 gigawatts of sea-based windmills connected to region’s electricity grid, after 883 megawatts of capacity was installed in 2010, the Brussels-based lobby known as EWEA said today in a report.
Countries including the U.K., Denmark and Belgium are betting on offshore wind power to help meet their renewable energy targets. While financing remains difficult to get for the capital-intensive projects, more banks are coming to the market, according to EWEA’s e-mailed study.
“Finance remains a big challenge, but we are seeing improvements with more banks and other financing institutions ready to invest in large offshore wind projects,” EWEA Chief Executive Christian Kjaer said. “The 29 new offshore turbine models announced during 2010 show a growing commitment to the sector by large global industrial players.”
Total installed capacity, at 2.9 gigawatts, is now enough to power 2.9 million homes, according to the study. More than 40 percent of capacity is based in the U.K., and 29 percent is in Denmark.
Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies announced that 2010 had registered as the hottest year on record. Nothing new here: nine of the last 10 years have been among the warmest ever.
The news highlighted one of Washington’s biggest failures over the last two years: its inability to advance climate legislation. It was also a grim reminder that things could get worse. Some crucial policy areas have always been neglected and some initiatives stalled. But rarely has a first-order concern like the nation’s climate and energy policy actually regressed “” and so dramatically as we’ve seen since the last presidential election.
Not long ago, it appeared likely that the United States would take meaningful action to mitigate climate change. In the 2008 presidential campaign, both Barack Obama and John McCain touted plans to limit carbon emissions under a cap-and-trade scheme. Even Sarah Palin supported the idea. Much of the business community did, too. Adding momentum was the recent Supreme Court ruling, in Massachusetts vs. Environmental Protection Agency, that required the EPA, under the Clean Air Act, to regulate harmful greenhouse gas emissions. Lawmakers, it was presumed, would take the matter into their own hands rather than cede that authority.
Of course, this didn’t happen. Over the strenuous objections of Republicans and coal-state Democrats, the House of Representatives passed a cap-and trade bill in 2009 that met an ignominious death in the Senate. Along the way, cap-and-trade “” originally a conservative idea “” came to be vilified as “cap and tax” and regarded by a substantial part of the conservative base as a form of fascist oppression. Today, fewer Americans believe in the reality of global warming than did so two years ago, and many took out their wrath last November on Democrats who’d supported a climate bill.
But this doesn’t capture the full scale of the setback. Since that debacle, momentum in Congress has shifted strongly against climate-change legislation.
A few years after finishing high school in 1994, Steve Andersen found work building auto hoods and fenders in a loud, gritty auto plant in his hometown here. Today, he has a new job in town: supervising technicians in smocks and hairnets who create material for solar panels in a white-floored laboratory.
The 34-year-old is a beneficiary of an economic shift in the Bay Area’s fourth-largest city, which is known for the shut-down Nummi auto plant where Mr. Andersen once worked. While Fremont, population 206,000, has long been an industrial center pumping out cars and their parts, the city has over the past few years increasingly attracted a slew of so-called clean-tech firms, which produce energy-efficient goods or services.
Mr. Andersen is in the minority from benefiting from Fremont’s clean-tech shift, however. Many of the new clean-tech arrivals””including electric-car maker Tesla Motors Inc., which bought the Nummi plant last May, and solar companies Solyndra Inc. and GreenVolts Inc., and Mr. Andersen’s new employer Solaria Corp.””employ lean staffs and have special exemptions on taxes.
“I don’t know that you’re going to be able to find a clear dollar connection” between the clean-tech arrivals and a boost in revenue for the city, says Lori Taylor, Fremont’s economic-development director. Still, she adds that she hopes clean-tech companies will eventually become a new growth engine, along with new biotech and high-tech firms that also have cropped up in recent years.
Overall, there were 20 clean-tech firms in Fremont in 2010, up from 12 in 2008 and six in 2006, according to Fremont’s economic-development department. The city occupies a sweet spot for clean-tech companies because of its relatively low rents and abundance of buildings that combine offices, manufacturing and research-and-development, thanks to the city’s manufacturing and high-tech legacy. That mix is rare in the costly Bay Area, where many clean-tech firms like to set up shop because of the proximity to engineering talent and venture-capital funds. One drawback is Fremont’s location outside the heart of Silicon Valley.
Foreign partnerships in China’s rapidly growing energy sector could eventually help the United States replace its own aging power infrastructure with efficient low-carbon plants, energy firms said on Wednesday.
With Chinese President Hu Jintao in Washington this week on a state visit, energy companies stressed the need for partnerships between the world’s two largest economies in areas such as nuclear and coal-fired electricity. Development of nuclear power in China could help lay the groundwork for a long-hoped-for U.S. nuclear renaissance, said Ricardo Perez, the top operations official for Westinghouse.
Foreign investment in China’s nuclear infrastructure “is not a threat or a liability”, Perez said at a U.S.-China clean energy forum hosted by the Brookings Institution. “It’s an unbelievable benefit” that could create jobs in both countries.
With new plants costing billions of dollars, no new reactors have been approved in the United States since the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear plant accident. The sector also must compete with plants that burn natural gas, which has fallen dramatically in price over the last two years. But nuclear investments in China could allow companies such as Westinghouse eventually to develop plants that can be built faster and at less cost in the United States.