In a significant shift within the electric vehicle (EV) industry, major automakers globally are moving towards the development of EV motors that are free from rare earth metals, a domain where Tesla has been a forerunner.
This transition is not only a stride towards sustainability but also a strategic move to reduce dependence on China, which currently dominates the rare earth metals market.
Tesla, a pioneer in electric vehicle technology, earlier announced at their Investor Day event that their next-generation powertrain will feature a permanent magnet motor devoid of rare earth metals.
This development by Tesla’s Vice President of Powertrain Engineering, Colin Campbell, underscores the company’s commitment to innovation and environmental sustainability.
Following Tesla’s lead, a range of automakers including General Motors, Jaguar Land Rover, and Nissan, in conjunction with suppliers like BorgWarner, are either in the process of researching or have already developed motors that significantly reduce or eliminate the use of rare earth materials. This collective move signals a significant shift in the industry’s approach to EV motor production.
Nissan has been particularly proactive, developing a new type of magnet-free motor, known as the externally excited synchronous machine (EESM). These motors use electrical currents to generate magnetic fields, eliminating the need for rare earth metals.
Nissan’s efforts are evident in their Ariya crossover, which utilizes an EESM motor. The Japanese automaker’s plan to phase out rare earth metals entirely, through both EESM development and the use of permanent magnet motors, marks a notable advancement in sustainable automotive technology.
Otmar Scharrer, CTO of German supplier ZF, highlighted the significance of these developments in reducing dependence on China. ZF has developed an EESM motor that matches the performance and size of traditional permanent magnet motors, showcasing the feasibility of this transition.
China’s dominance in the rare earth metals market has raised concerns, especially following its recent export ban on gallium and graphite, essential for EV production.
The move away from rare earth metals is not just a matter of strategic independence but also of sustainability. The mining and processing of these metals often involve environmentally damaging practices, including the use of solvents and the generation of toxic waste.
Companies like Detroit-based Drive System Design are actively working with automakers to develop rare earth metal-free motors, reinforcing the environmental benefits of this shift. Ben Chiswick, the firm’s Director of Engineering Business Development, emphasized the sustainability aspect of these new motors.
Even automakers not fully eliminating rare earth metals are substantially reducing their use. Mercedes-Benz, for instance, plans to use minimal heavy rare earth materials in its next-generation EVs, still employing permanent magnet motors but with significantly less of these minerals.