In the 2013 project to evaluate the availability of rare earth metals to manufacturing, eight Fraunhofer Institutes bundled their competencies to find new solution for a more efficient use of these rare resources, particularly in electric motors.
The results, which were recently presented, include optimized production processes, concepts for recycling, and new materials, which could potentially replace rare-earth materials. Using the example of electric motors, the Fraunhofer researchers were able to prove that the current demand for rare-earth materials, particularly Dysprosium and Neodymium, could be reduced to one fifth of the current usage.
The research objects were two electric motors, a small drivetrain and a traction drive. Project spokesperson Prof. Ralf B. Wehrspohn said that their initial target had been to halve the use of rare earth materials on these benchmark motors. By combining different technical approaches, they were able to meet this goal and even go beyond their expectations. Many current motor configurations work with permanent-magnets, which rely on rare-earth materials. Wehrspohn noted that the amount of such systems would increase drastically in the near future due to e-mobility trends.
According to the researchers, the project is unique due to it’s breadth and depth – they looked at everything from quantum computer simulations of magnetic materials to producing prototypes of near-final form magnets up to recycling rare earth materials after the usage phase. The results will now be brought to the market soon with the organization.
The project was initially kicked off after a 2013 price shock: When China, which uses about 90% of the world’s rare earth materials in manufacturing, declared an export halt, the prices for batteries and their material skyrocketed. This also revealed just how dependent European markets are on the Chinese industry, and industrialists scrambled to find a way around the resource-dependency.