Drive to find an alternative to rare earth metals

September 21, 2011

A world-leading team of UK engineers has been charged with developing a new motor for electric vehicles that will significantly reduce our future dependency on rare earth metals.

Sevcon, Cummins Generator Technologies and Newcastle University have been awarded £518,000 by the UK's Technology Strategy Board to develop a novel electric motor for hybrid electric and pure electric vehicles.

Unlike the current EV motors which rely on rare earth metals such as Neodymium and Dysprosium, the new motors will replace these rare earth metals with steel. Steel is not only cheaper and less damaging to the environment, but also much more widely available - a key factor if we are to meet the expected rise in demand for hybrid and electric vehicles.

James Widmer, of Newcastle University's Centre for Advanced Electrical Drives, explained: "The pressure on supplies of rare-earth metals coupled with rising demand for this technology means the pressure is on to find an alternative.

"In addition to this, extracting these rare minerals can be incredibly destructive to the environment. If we are to pursue electric and hybrid vehicles as a truly greener option then we need to look not only at the fuel but also the materials we are using to develop the various components.

"Newcastle University, Sevcon and Cummins are in an excellent position to deliver this world class technology. Between us we are leaders in the development of new electric motor technologies, the supply of the electronics which drive the new electric vehicles and the manufature of engines for many of the world's commercial vehicles."

Rare earth metals are a range of minerals which have become increasingly important in the delivery of new and sustainable technologies ranging from electric vehicles to solar panels.

However their success in these applications is now raising worldwide concern about the supply and environmental impact of mining these materials.

The market for electric cars and commercial vehicles is expected to grow five fold over the next decade from less than 2 million EV's sold in 2010 to an estimated 49 million by 2020. But this $180 billion-industry will be held back unless alternatives can be found for the metals currently used to drive the engines.

The research is part of the University's on-going commitment to tackle one of the great societal challenges of our age - Sustainability - and it is hoped the system being developed by the partners will be ready for volume production within four years.

About The Technology

The "High Torque Density Switched Reluctance Drive System for Low Carbon Vehicles" project will develop a highly innovative electrical machine and drive system for low carbon vehicles.

Containting no expensive and scarce rare earth magnet material it will be capable of providing tractive power and acting as a generator in a cost competitive and suitable for high volume manufacture package.

This project will go beyond the current state of the art in low carbon vehicle drivetrains by replacing electric motors which use rare earth magnets with one that does not and electronic control systems based on cutting edge power devices.

Dr. Peter Barras, Sevcon's Vice President of Engineering, said: "This is an exciting, cutting edge project in a market sector that has great potential. We are already very active in the low carbon vehicle sector and the performance capabilities of our advance technology motor controllers are ideal for this sort of application. We are delighted to be bringing our automotive drivetrain engineering expertise to this project.

Speaking about the award CGT's General Manager for Emerging Business Sitaram Ganeshan said: "We are committed to developing innovative products that enable us to deliver attractive value propositions for our customers. The rising costs of magnets can have a significant impact on the cost of electric machines and this award provides an excellent platform to develop a new generation of electric motors to meet the challenges. It further reinforces our position as a technology leader in electric machines and our committment to provide innovative solutions to the industry."

Newcastle University's Professor Barrie Mecrow, who leads the University's electric motor research, added: "We are delighted to have the opportunity to apply our research concepts in the electric vehicles sector. There is a tremendous opportunity for this consortium to make a real impact upon the electric vehicles of the future, combining low cost with highly efficient solutions. The consortium provides the ideal mix of leading motor and drive manufacturing experience with state of the art research capability."

Newcastle University

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