Beware China’s dominance for rare earth materials used in motion control

China currently dominates the world supply of the raw rare earth materials and many derivative products – including high performance magnets and motors!

All engineers working in the motion control industry appreciate the considerable advances in motor performance that has been brought about over the past few decades by the commercialisation and mass manufacture of rare earth magnet systems. Rare earth based magnet materials, particularly those using Neodymium Iron Boride or NdFeB, offer a marked dynamic performance increase over ferrite magnet types for motor torque and acceleration. This magnet material also contributes to improved motor efficiency and a reduction in the actual motor frame size required to do a job. At present there are no commercially available motor technologies that can rival the performance of NdFeB for most application areas.

Neodymium rare earth magnets are now widely employed in both linear and rotary, brushed and brushless servomotors as well as stepper motors used for automated positioning systems.  They are also used in other specialist areas such as cordless tools and computer hard drives. Wind turbine generators may also benefit from rare earth  materials for improved performance and efficiency. Electric vehicles, which are an almost predestined requirement for our future transportation will greatly benefit from NdFeB.

Less than 15 years ago, 90 percent of the world’s magnet production was in the USA, Europe or Japan but China’s rare earth industries were developed several years before this with major investment whilst other countries allowed their grip on the industry to loosen. China’s emerging industries began offering extremely competitive pricing for rare earth derivative materials such as magnets which caused other countries manufacturers to fall away or to lose interest. Nowadays however, the purchase cost  of materials and many downstream products from China has become increasingly expensive with high price increases each year. At the same time China is reducing exports of rare earth materials though at present not the downstream products using them – but that may be just a matter of time?.
This situation has an increasingly worrying impact on major high technology sectors in the USA, Japan and Germany and whilst the UK, by comparison,  is neither a major user of rare earth materials or magnets for motor production, it is however reliant upon the availability of motors, generators and other downstream NdFeB based products as important components for the high technology industries that it excels in.

There are many reports on this predicament which cover the wider situation, extending to the potential dearth of other rare earth materials that are critical for many high technology areas  from lasers and fibre optic technologies to metal alloys, batteries and MRI scanners.  The Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology has published an excellent POSTnote briefing on the state of affairs. Available on http://www.parliament.uk/post, the January 2011 report concludes with potential solutions including mining initiatives that are taking place in the USA and Australia that will begin to redress the global availability of rare earth materials from 2014. However,  it does not give specifics on new alternative magnet manufacturing sources outside of China and although Japan is developing alternatives to NdFeB, there is presently no material that can surpass its performance. The report also discusses recycling of materials which apparently is more attractive for high power magnet systems though would not seem to solve the potential cost/availability escalation problem we may face.

It is sincerely hoped that there is an emerging initiative that will process raw rare earth neodymium material outside of China or develop new high power magnet materials to safeguard the future for the global motion control and motor related industries.

So my question;  Is sufficient encouragement being given to the scientific arena to develop alternative materials in order to maintain our nations role in future advancements and maintain a high-technology economy?

 

** UPDATE 20th October 2011 – to reinforce the concern.

Article from A Business World Twitter feed.

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