Just how important are rare earth metals?

Rare earth metals continue to be a source of concern for electrification. Within the next few years, certain rare earths could push of the costs of hybrid cars and electric vehicles.

Could dysprosium kill the electric car?

Hybrids and EVs: All about the commodities

Rare earth metals. In the last year or so the potential of a rare earth metal shortage has continued to gain traction in the press, particularly since China owns 95 percent of all rare earth metal production.

If there is a big move to hybrid and electric vehicles, wind power, etc., will there be enough rare earth metals to go around?

A few months ago environmental and research consultancy Oakdene Hollins, for example, studied the supply of rare earth metals for the U.K. Government’s Department for Transport, and found that supplies of some rare earth metals, such as dysprosium could indeed quickly run short of demand. And since it will take at least a decade to develop mines and production capabilities to reduce China's stranglehold on the rare earth metal market, Oakdene Hollins warns that rare earth metal shortages are a very real possibility.

In fact, recently even the military has taken notice of the potential for a rare earth shortage thanks to a recent GAO report, particularly ‘heavy' rare earth metals. Because of their use in computer hard drives, lasers, radar, missile-guidance systems, satellites and aircraft electronics, the military is considering adding rare earths to the National Defense Stockpile.

While non-Chinese mines are being developed and production facilities considered, the greatest opportunity could be next generation magnets, and that leads straight to the University of Delaware and physicist George Hadjipanayis, co-inventor of the Nd-Fe-B magnet. Currently, Hadjipanayis and his ARPA-E funded research term are investigating at least three new ways to either reduce, or even replace, the need for rare earths.

In the interim, however, rare earth metals could result in a huge, albeit probably temporary, weight around the neck of automotive electrification for at least the next 10 – 15 years according to a plethora of experts.

On the other hand, breaking away from rare earth metals could be a very rich green investment.


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