Published December 28, 2011
According to a recently-released Department of Energy report (PDF), several clean energy technologies—including electric, plug-in hybrid and hybrid vehicles—are at risk due to the “critical risk” posed by short-term supply disruptions in the rare earth elements market. The DOE's newly release report, titled "2011 Critical Materials Strategy," outlines several components, including five rare earth metals, that it says will face severe supply challenges in the years that lie ahead.
According to the report, five rare earth metals—dysprosium, terbium, europium, neodymium and yttrium—were found to be in critically low supply in the short term (2012–2015.) These rare earth metals are typically found in magnets used in today's wind turbines, electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles. Supply of other elements, including cerium, indium, lanthanum and tellurium—were found to be near-critical in the short and medium term (2015–2025.)
But lately, the market seems to disagree. Shares of the world's leading rare earths mining companies have plummeted in recent months as demand for the minerals has failed to meet even half of Chinese export quotas. Since China currently dominates international production of rare earth metals, the inability of those quotas to keep up with forecasted demand has long been seen as a threat to hybrid and electric vehicles, whose batteries and motors become more costly as rare earth prices rise.
According to the DOE, the future success of clean, advanced automobiles relies on the availability of several of these rare earth metals and elements. Therefore, it's thought to be essential that supply issues are solved before plug-in vehicle production hits massive levels.
But the importance of minerals like neodymium and lanthanum to producing hybrid and electric vehicles is complicated and often overstated. Tesla's electric vehicles are virtually rare-earth-free, and Toyota is developing motors for its hybrids that eschew the minerals in favor of inductive magnetism. It possible to produce hybrid and electric vehicles without rare earths, but since many major automakers like Toyota have longstanding contracts with spelling out fixed prices for the minerals, it simply hasn't been necessary yet.
Is the department of energy wrong in worrying about short-term disruptions in the rare-earths supply chain creating headaches for some hybrid and electric vehicle makers? Probably not, but in the long term, electric-drive vehicles should be just fine regardless of Chinese export quotas.