|Do hybrids have a long-term future – or will they be abandoned because there just aren’t enough supplies of critical materials necessary for their manufacture?
Close to home, could this threaten Toyota’s long-term plans for its Camry Hybrid in Australia?
At the moment just about every car manufacturer – those which aren’t already making hybrids – has plans to introduce one or more, ranging from full hybrids to plug-in electric cars with on-board internal combustion engines for recharging the batteries on long trips.
However recent reports suggest that already the planet is groaning under demands for certain rare earth metals used in the manufacture of the magnets in the electric motors in hybrid motor vehicles – and, coincidentally, but by no means less important in the big picture of sustainable electricity production, wind turbines, too
What’s more most of these materials come from China, which has already embarked on a hybrid programme of its own.
Faced with a choice between delivering these minerals to its own factories or those in the West, it becomes a no-brainer, and doors are likely to be firmly locked against us.
The fact is that the electric motor and battery in hybrids – notably the Toyota Prius, as the market leader – eat up rare earth metals at a prodigious rate.
According to recent reports worldwide demand for rare earth metals, covering 15 entries on the periodic table of elements, is expected to exceed supply by some 40,000 tons annually in the near future unless major new production sources are developed.
Among the rare earths that would be most affected is neodymium, the key component of an alloy used to make the high-power, lightweight magnets for electric motors of hybrid cars such as the Prius, as well as in generators for wind turbines.
Close cousins terbium and dysprosium are added in smaller amounts to the alloy to preserve neodymium’s magnetic properties at high temperatures.
Yet another rare earth metal, lanthanum, is a major ingredient for hybrid car batteries.
Each electric Prius motor requires 1 kg of neodymium, and each battery uses 10 to 15 kg of lanthanum. That number is expected to nearly double as Toyota improves the car’s fuel economy.
Toyota plans to sell 100,000 Prius cars in the United States alone for 2009, and 180,000 next year. The company forecasts sales of 1 million units per year starting in 2010.
Total hybrid global sales are now estimated at around 500,000 (not including stop\\start micro hybrids), while hybrid car sales in the US market are forecast for 1 million by 2012.
At the end of 2008 there were some 34 models on sale from various manufacturers ranging from the full hybrid Prius to the mild hybrid Mercedes S Class, and looking forward there are many more planned.
So if there aren’t enough minerals to build hybrids, does this mean the end for clean air?