Ford Cuts Rare-Earth Metal Use In Hybrid Batteries, But ...

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2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid, Los Angeles, August 2012

2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid, Los Angeles, August 2012

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With plug-in cars now on the market, rare-earth metals are a hot commodity.

They're needed in one type of electric motor and various electronic components, and volume projections for hybrid and electric cars mean that increasingly larger quantities will be required.

China has largely cornered the market, having driven down prices earlier in the decade--it helps if there's little effective environmental or workplace oversight of your mining operations--and is now clamping down on exports.

Other rare-earth mines are planned to reopen, including one in Mountain Pass, California, but concern over reliable supplies of many different elements used in electrified vehicles permeates the industry.

So a recent press release from Ford, highlighting the reduction of rare-earth metals in its new lithium-ion hybrid battery packs seems like a welcome development.

Its older models, the outgoing Fusion Hybrid sedan and the discontinued Escape Hybrid crossover, used the same nickel-metal-hydride cell chemistry that was pioneered in the 1997 Toyota Prius and continues to this day in most hybrid models.

Ford says the company will forgo the use of up to 500,000 pounds of rare-earth metals a year, depending on production volume.

"Dysprosium, the most expensive rare earth metal used in Ford vehicles," says the release, "is reduced by approximately 50 percent" in the motors and other components of the new cars.

There's a piece of context notably missing from the release, however.

Its newest hybrids, the 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid and upcoming 2013 Ford Fusion Hybrid, feature lithium-ion batteries not solely because they cut rare-earth metal usage, but because lithium-ion cells contain roughly twice as much energy by weight as the older cells.

That cuts the size of the battery packs by almost half, not to mention making them cheaper--as Ford notes, touting the $25,995 base price (before delivery) of the C-Max Hybrid.

But ... see that "nickel metal" piece of the older chemistry?

Nickel and other metals are used in much smaller quantities in various types of lithium-ion cells, depending on the specific chemistry used.

We're all for reducing the use of the rarest and priciest elements of auto technology.

And there's a precedent: today's catalytic converters contain only a fraction of the platinum and other metals used in 1975, when converters first appeared on production cars to reduce emissions.

But we thought we'd provide that little bit of context that Ford seems to have left out.

Just sayin'.


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Comments (13)
  1. ...OK... So Ford is saying they have reduced their dependence on rare earth metals, and you blast them for not using rare earth metals?

    Not sure about how "But ... see that "nickel metal" piece of the older chemistry?" is really added context.

  2. To avoid misunderstandings some further context:

    -Nickel isn't a rare earth metal, it isn't rare; it's common and cheap so the use of it in Li-ion batteries is not a problem in any way.

    -Rare earth metals aren't actually rare, they are just found in low concentrations and few countries can be bothered to do the messy job of extracting them

    -lithium ion batteries don't contain rare earth, only the old NiMH did.

    -No rare earth metals are needed for the production of EVs. Both Nissan and Tesla use none, Toyota is moving away from it.

    -China currently owns the market but both in the US and Canada rare earth mining will (re)start.

  3. @Chris O: As I suspect you know, there are two kinds of electric motors. The kind that do not use rare earths are best suited to smaller motors that transition more quickly, which is to say they're best suited for mild-hybrid applications. The kind that do use rare earths are better suited for primary traction motor use in full hybrids and electric-drive vehicles, e.g. Prius, Volt, etc. There are some exceptions to that rule, but that's largely how it's played out thus far.

    I should have been more clear in distinguishing between the use of nickel--which is valuable but not a rare-earth metal--and the rare earths that, as you note, are used in NiMH but not Li-ion cells.

    {continued} ...

  4. Actually, I didn't know the rare earth free type of motor wasn't all that suitable for main traction motors, mainly because it's just another misunderstanding from your part I suspect. There is a reason both Tesla and Nissan use them without problems and as you may know Tesla's motors aren't exactly the "smaller" variety.

  5. "The kind that do not use rare earths are best suited to smaller motors "

    Actually I suspect many small motors with rare-earth Neodymium magnets are widely used in cars and have been for some time. There are dozens of small electric motors in modern cars. Rare earth magnets are commonly used in many small motors, e.g. hard disk drive motors use them almost exclusively for both the spindle motor and the actuator.

  6.'s actually more like the other way around then...

    I'm still not sure what the use of nickel in li-ion batteries has to do with "reducing the use of the rarest and priciest elements of auto technology". It's hardly a cost factor in battery production and it enhances energy density greatly. Seems like much to do about nothing, no need for rare earth, no problems with nickel.

    Another car that uses AC induction rather than rare earth motors as main traction motor is the GM Volt BTW.

  7. Correct, John. Most vehicles now have 100-200 motors. Two main types, brush motors, old technology for basic applications like seat, window, sunroof motors. Brushless are used for areas where precise control or duty cycle may be tougher, for example, or need better efficiency.

    EVs actually tend to use more RE material than regular ICEs, not less. There are far more motors and many of them are brushless, which usually means RE. Even today, both non-RE and RE traction motors are common and my company does both, although I'm not in the traction motor group.

    Tesla, GM and others have done well getting RE out of some applications, but you're correct in that all vehicles have RE motors in 2012, usually dozens.

  8. ... {continued} Many Li-ion cells do, however, contain various amounts of metals (nickel, manganese, cobalt, aluminum) of various costs, rarities, and toxicities--all depending on the specific chemistry of the cell.

    I'll have a crack at tweaking the piece to make these points more clear.

    But I stand by the assertion that a release touting Ford's elimination of rare earths in their batteries might better point out that it's a side effect of more important factors, e.g. greater energy density and, these days, lower cost than the older alternative.

  9. "The kind that do use rare earths are better suited for primary traction motor use in full hybrids and electric-drive vehicles, e.g. Prius, Volt, etc. There are some exceptions to that rule, but that's largely how it's played out thus far. "


    You are incorrect in this case. Volt's main traction motor is 3 phase A/C induction motor that does NOT use any rare earth magnet. Neither does the eRAV-4 or any of the Tesla motors. The old EV1 didn't use it either. They are all induction motors. Yes, Prius use them.

    Permanent magnet motor with REMs are powerful especially in low speed and high torque usage. But it does NOT mean that Induction motor can't do the same with complex power electronic circuits.

  10. Wikipedia provides this clue.

    "Neodymium-iron-boron magnets can have up to 6% of the neodymium substituted with dysprosium[22]"

    It goes on to say.

    "This substitution would require up to 100 grams of dysprosium per hybrid car produced. Based on Toyota's projected 2 million units per year, the use of dysprosium in applications such as this would quickly exhaust the available supply of the metal."

  11. Mining and Processing REM are potentially very dirty and can cause large scale environmental issues. It is a good thing that China is reducing its REM production and force smaller and unregulated mines to merge. Its main reason is to consolidate the Chinese REM industry and "force" western companies to relocate REM high tec manufacturing to China in order to create jobs AND transfer high tech cleaner processing technology. Of course, increased profits don't hurt either...

    We also "waste" a lot of REM in our cheap electronics. Germany has started to recycle them and recover up to 30% of what it needs in REM from recycled REMs... Computer HDD and typical cell phones use a lot of those REMs...

  12. Actually, cheap or not, sophisticated electronics NEED REM. They can't function without them. Cars, on the other hand, function quite well without ANY. Electric cars jack up the price of electronics because they now serve as competition for those materials.

  13. Good thing the use of more nickel in Li-ion batteries isn't really a problem because Nissan just announced it will speed up the introduction of better next gen batteries to counter lack lustre sales (it will enable Nissan to offer the Leaf at a lower price) and maybe also the problem it appears to have with more than expected capacity loss in hot climates:

    This battery should be the lithium NICKEL manganese cobalt oxide cathode battery, or NMC that Nissan announced years ago.

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