Much of the world’s sophisticated high-tech electronic products would not be possible without the use of so-called rare-earth materials. In the industrial world, modern, high-power electric motors rely on powerful magnetic materials for their power density edge. Traditionally, these motors have incorporated rare-earth magnets such as neodymium iron boron (NdFeB).
Recently, prices of rare-earth materials have fallen, especially with China’s recent news that it would be lifting its cap on rare-earth material exports. Right now there’s a change afoot on two different fronts; one is the question of supply of rare earth materials and the other is finding an alternative to these materials themselves.
On the supply side, Molycorp, Inc., a key North American miner of rare-earth materials, today reported that rare-earth production in the fourth quarter of 2014 at its Mountain Pass, California facility increased year-on-year and nearly doubled that of the preceding quarter. The Mountain Pass facility completed the fourth quarter of 2014 with 1,328 metric tons (mt) of rare-earth oxide equivalent production. That compares to 1,034 mt for the same quarter of 2013 and 691 mt in the third quarter of 2014. Full year 2014 production totaled 4,785 mt, compared to 3,473 mt in 2013.
Officials from the company said that the higher production volumes they expect at Mountain Pass in 2015 should coincide with relatively strong demand for products such as the magnetic rare-earth material Neodymium/Praseodymium, Lanthanum, and Light Rare Earth Concentrate (LREC). Molycorp processes Mountain Pass LREC at vertically integrated downstream processing facilities into a variety of value-added engineered materials, including rare-earth magnetic materials for multiple downstream markets and vehicle emissions catalysts that consume cerium and other materials.
“We were pleased to see our production increase in the fourth quarter relative to the preceding quarter and year-on-year,” said Geoff Bedford, President and CEO of Molycorp, Inc. “Optimization at Mountain Pass is ongoing, but our Q4 production demonstrates momentum in the right direction. Rare-earth pricing softened in Q4 with market uncertainty surrounding release of final details of China’s ongoing reforms to rare earth mining, separation, and export regulatory policies.”
The other trend is the ongoing R&D effort to find alternatives that would match or exceed the current energy densities of rare-earth materials. Design World editor Lee Teschler wrote about this trend and what it could mean for electric motor production here.
So what does all this mean for motor manufacturers? If nothing else, it means more and varied supply in a market formerly dominated by Chinese mining companies that once had a virtual monopoly on pricing. One thing’s for sure; motor manufacturers will be paying close attention to see how the situation evolves. And what it could ultimately mean for the motors they design and build.