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What Are ‘Rare Earth’ Magnets And How Are They Used to Power EVs?

Global warming poses one of the largest threats to our survival as humans that we have ever faced. As global leaders and citizens of the world begin to place increasing pressure on tackling the issue of carbon emissions, electric vehicles (EVs) are becoming a central component of green energy strategies.

Currently, 13 states have adopted the Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEV) Program in the United States, including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. The ZEV program is focused on increasing the number of EVs on roadways with targets that increase annually.

Government efforts combined with the preferences of those who wish to live a carbon-free lifestyle are leading to the expectation of more than 250 million EVs being present on the road.

Harnessing green energy, EVs have the power to make a positive impact on our planet. However, for manufacturers to keep up with the burgeoning demand for these vehicles, there is increasing pressure being placed on companies to reimagine how EVs are powered.

It all starts with understanding how specific elements from the earth are currently utilized in the function of EVs.

Let’s take a look at one critical component — rare earth magnets — and how these magnets have long played a crucial role in the operation of EV engines.

What Is a Rare Earth Magnet?

As the name indicates, a rare earth magnet is comprised of rare earth elements. Neodymium and Samarium Cobalt are the two most commonly used rare earth magnets. While the term “rare earth” may seem to indicate that these elements are scarce, the reality is that they are quite abundant. However, while the elements are not rare, they are not found in large concentrated amounts. Instead, they are intermixed with other elements, which makes it difficult, costly, and environmentally impactful to mine these elements.

For this reason, only a few global sources provide the bulk supply of rare earth elements.

What makes rare earth magnets stand out is their incredible strength. They are the strongest permanent magnets available. This strength also means that the size of the magnet in use is dramatically lessened. One minuscule rare earth magnet can deliver the same power as a large ceramic magnet.

How EVs Use Rare Earth Magnets

In many EVs, rare earth magnets play a crucial role in the operation of the electric motor. These motors operate when the repulsion of rare earth magnets — powered by an electric current — creates a high-speed rotation of a coil. This coil is attached to an axle, and the rotation of the coil powers the wheels of the vehicle.

Rare earth magnets have been the magnet of choice for EVs for three key reasons:

  1. The power of the magnetic field: The most powerful permanent magnets are rare earth magnets. In the case of powering a motor, this power is necessary for creating a strong enough repulsive effect for spinning the coil.
  2. The ability to withstand heat: All permanent magnets are negatively affected by heat. However, rare earth magnets can withstand the head of the coil and magnet interaction without degrading rapidly. This provides long-term performance, unlike most permanent magnets.
  3. Their compact size: When designing EVs, manufacturers are continually looking for ways to reduce the size and weight of key components. Rare earth magnets allow the most magnetic force possible to be packed into a small size.

A Volatile Market for Magnets and Batteries

While rare earth magnets have been a popular choice in the design of EVs, many manufacturers are now redesigning EVs to reduce the number of rare earth materials needed — or in some cases, completely negate the need for rare earth magnets.

This is largely due to the price volatility of rare earth magnets. Currently, China controls 90% of the supply of rare earth elements, which has led to extreme volatility in pricing. For example, in 2011, China restricted exports of rare earths, which led to a price jump of 750% for neodymium and 2000% and dysprosium. While prices have since stabilized to a degree, in 2021, the prices began to soar once again.

Along with price concerns, many are beginning to raise environmental concerns about the mining of rare earth elements. These elements are extracted from ores that often contain radioactive materials. Extracting the elements also requires the use of numerous carcinogenic compounds. Processing rare earths can produce large amounts of toxic waste.

In response, companies are racing to produce EVs with less dependence on rare earths. For example, Nissan Motor Co has completely scrapped the use of rare earths from the Ariya model. BMW did the same with its iX3 electric SUV. Simultaneously, other vehicle makers, such as Toyota, are still using rare earth magnets but are reducing the amount of neodymium utilized in the development of its magnets.

However, it is not just rare earth magnets that have created bottlenecks in the manufacturing of new EVs. In addition to dominating the rare earth magnet market, China has also had a stranglehold on the materials utilized in EV batteries. This is leading to a new wave in EV battery designs.

The New Wave of EV Batteries

Both in the United States and Europe, companies are pouring funding into the development of new batteries using cheaper, more abundant materials. In fact, over a half dozen start-ups alone have attracted millions of dollars in investment — along with government grants — aimed at developing new batteries that are less reliant upon lithium, cobalt, manganese, and high-grade nickel.

For example, Sila Nanotechnologies is designing a battery that replaces the graphite anode that accounts for about 15% of the weight of lithium-ion batteries with a type of silicon. The company claims that this will result in a 20 to 40% increase in energy density in battery cells while simultaneously charging faster.

Additionally, the Pacific Northwest National Lab has been making headlines with its breakthrough in sodium-ion battery technology. This new development is poised to tame the unstable aspects of sodium-ion technology while removing cobalt from the battery formula.

Another option that EV manufacturers are exploring is the use of solid-state batteries. These batteries offer a greater energy density, which could translate to an EV with a longer range utilizing a smaller battery. Solid-state batteries also charge faster and provide a longer cycle life, with GM promising to produce a ground-breaking million-mile life battery in the future.

Join the Charge

As vehicle manufacturers shift their focus toward EVs, we are excited to see what technological breakthroughs will come next. The future is bright, and the future is green. We hope you, too, will join the charge for change. Stay tuned and up to date on the latest EV living news by signing up for our newsletter. And be sure to follow us on Instagram for daily carbon-free lifestyle inspiration.

By evee Life Contributor

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