Scaling Scarcity: The Risk of Neo Magnet Shortage in EVs
There is no real substitute for neo magnets. For mass-scale manufacturing of EVs under quota dictations, the shortage could affect EE resources.
Recently, a lot of focus has been on the wavering chip supply; however, another issue in parallel with the chip supply is the scarcity of rare earth elements (REE).
One major factor in the REE shortage is creating neodymium magnets (NdFeB, NIB, or neo magnets).
Neo magnets are permanent magnets made from an alloy of the rare earth element neodymium (Nd) and some content of iron (Fe) and boron (B). These magnets can contain varying levels of other REEs, including dysprosium (Dy), terbium (Tb), and praseodymium (Pr). These elements are used to enhance corrosion resistance and improve intrinsic coercivity. Some neo magnets have a NiCuNi coating to increase intrinsically low operating temperatures to 160°C.
General physical properties of neo magnets. Image used courtesy of Integrated Magnets
The reason that these magnets are essential is due to their unique magnetic properties which are used in a wide variety of electrical applications and components.
Unique Magnetic Properties of Neodymium Magnets
With their unique composition, these rare earth magnets have excellent magnetic properties, including good magnet strength (52MGOe), which is measured by coercive force and flux density.
They are also easy to process into unique shapes. Neo magnets are lighter than ferrite magnets. Furthermore, being relatively more available, they are not as expensive as the (by strength) lower graded samarium–cobalt (SmCo) magnets, rated at 32MGOe.
Neodymium vs. SmCo magnet performance. Image used courtesy of Arnold Magnetics
One growing application for these magnets is in the EV manufacturing industry as components in magnetic motors.
NdFeB Magnets Scarcity Projections
Although they are brittle and need to be handled with caution, NdFeB (neodymium-ferrite-boron) magnets are still the best solution to be included in making EV motors due to the characteristics mentioned above. However, their scarcity is imminent.
By 2030, with the boom of the EV industry, there will be a need for tens of millions of EVs to suffice market needs. Each EV motor contains 1-2 kg of permanent magnets, while hybrid vehicles have little less than 0.5 kg.
According to the IAE (International Energy Agency), electric vehicles numbers will grow from 3.1 million in 2017 to 125 million in 2030; even if more conservative 2030 predictions are considered (made by IDTechEx), such as the increase in demand for permanent magnets by 31%, the scarcity problem continues to prevail.
Permanent magnetic motors in electric vehicles can be considered superior to induction motors in electric vehicles––due to their higher efficiency. Tesla's Model 3 switch to a permanent motor magnet manufacturing for mass-market vehicles was further proof that NdFeB magnets are the drivers of electrification. Tesla's driving range is the current best; however, Chinese EVs with locally sourced batteries are a close second. Currently, China is dominating the lithium battery market.
Where Does the Shortage Come from?
The problem with NdFeB magnets is that the rare elements Dy and Tb used for thermal enhancement on NdFeB magnets are only mined in a handful of locations. Large Chinese Dy and Tb mines in the country's south make all other markets highly dependent on supply and price dictation with export quotas.
One possible solution that may ease the burden is Australia's Northern Minerals' development of a dysprosium source and several other rare-earth mining locations aiming to be developed in Russia, Brazil, and India by other companies.
The shortage is a consequence of other NdFeB magnet applications, as well. Hard disks, magnetic fasteners, audio equipment, lifting machinery, MRI scanners, ABS sensors, to name a few, are made of neo magnets. Another factor is wind turbines, which are planning to gain momentum as the globe moves towards more renewable resources.
REE used in electric vehicles. Image used courtesy of Mines Magazine
A significant consideration for the EV industry is to refrain from using NdFeB magnets to reduce rare-earth metals mining, though currently, that may be easier said than done.
Nonetheless, companies attempting to reduce Dy and Tb in their EVs are few and far between; take Nissan and Honda, for example. However, the global market trends may command reversal of ethical sourcing considerations, and the US is now becoming more invested in local rare-earth projects.
The Outcome of Scarcity and Volatility for EEs
Such a volatile setting indicates implications for EEs that can range from career relocation to shifts in design and manufacturing. Finding substitutes for the most efficient rare-earth magnets, for instance, SmCo is an option for alternative industrial applications, but perhaps not for EVs.
Extraterrestrial mining is not impossible, but it is still far-fetched for mass commercial applications. It is essential to consider the linear risk planning and projections of the dependence on rare-earth elements mined in China in EE projects. Reuse, recycling, and by-product extraction are viable alternatives that must be of prime focus as the demand for electric vehicles increases as projected.
Interested in other challenges the EE industry is facing? Find out more in the articles down below.