The West’s dependency on China for rare earth metals used in electric vehicle batteries has remained a top issue, both geopolitically and financially, for some time. The Asian country, which mines 63% of the 17 rare earth metals currently used to produce electric components, along with other high-tech applications, and processes 85% of the metals, has monopolized the market.
Although rare earth metals are found in other countries, such as Canada, Australia, the U.S. and Brazil, to name a few, China is able to mine and process the materials for a fraction of the cost due to its use of environmentally unfriendly practices and cheap labor.
Politically, this poses a problem for the U.S. because the two countries aren’t strong allies and have a long history of participating in trade wars against one another.
Recently, U.S.-China relations worsened after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi paid a visit to Taiwan earlier this month. The U.S.’s relationship with the self-governed island-country poses a threat to China, which views Taiwan as part of its territory.
With the U.S. hoping to meet its green initiatives, to make 50% of all vehicles "zero-emissions" by 2030, the Biden administration has begun to increase funding for the rare earth metal mining sector in order to decrease its dependency on China. As part of the Ukraine Bill that President Joe Biden signed into law in May, $500-million was allocated toward obtaining battery metals.
But what if technology was developed to make manufacturer batteries without rare earth metals?
What Happened: 17-year-old Robert Sansone from Fort Pierce, Florida recently won an award for the EV battery prototype he developed, which runs using a synchronous reluctance motor as opposed to the permanent magnet motors currently used in EVs.
Sansone, who took home the George D. Yancopoulos Innovator Award at the 2022 Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair, set out to create an economical and environmentally friendly battery that runs without the need for magnets and therefore doesn’t require the inclusion of rare earth metals.
Sansone’s battery prototype, which draws on the technology similar to what is currently used to power fans and pumps, is made with 3-D printed plastic, copper wires, and a steel rotor to produce torque by creating a magnetic field between the steel and the air-filled gaps within the unit.
The Problem: Although Sansone’s motor was able to run efficiently at 300 revolutions per minute (RPM) and up to 700 rpm in a test, the higher speed melted the 3-D printed plastic parts. For reference, Tesla’s TSLA Model S Plaid is estimated to run at 23,308 rpm at speeds of 200 mph.
The issue poses a problem for the young inventor, although Sansone plans to achieve a higher rpm through his next prototype, which will use different materials. If successful, Sansone will consider contacting EV-makers and begin the process of obtaining a patent.
The Benzinga Take: Batteries made without the use of rare earth metals have been around for over 100 years. In the 1830’s, Michael Faraday laid the foundation for the production of solid-state batteries, and the technology has received renewed interest recently for use in EVs.
Current solid-state battery models, however, such as the solid-state lithium-metal battery technology being developed by QuantumScape Corporation QS, still rely on rare earth metals to produce the required amount of energy to be used in EV batteries, making them quasi-solid-state.
The reality is that metals used in EV batteries, such as lithium and graphite, will be highly sought after by EV-manufacturers for the foreseeable future. Consequently, lithium producers Albemarle Corporation ALB and Lithium Americas Corp LAC have seen their stocks soar about 45% and 51% higher since July 14. Future non-China-based flake graphite producers have also started to rebound recently, with Nouveau Monde Graphite, Inc NMG surging over 62% since July 26 and Syrah Resources, Ltd SYAAF skyrocketing about 50% over the same time period, the latter recently secured a supply agreement with Tesla.
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