New study shows that rare-earth magnets could displace "conventional" types in high-power electric drives for vehicles
British consultants, Oakdene Hollins, have published a technical and commercial study of how an electrolytic production process developed at Cambridge University could transform prospects for the exploitation of rare-earth magnets. The process is already attracting development funds from the US Navy.
Rare-earth permanent magnets offer significantly improved performance characteristics over those of conventional magnets, but are more expensive. Although costs have fallen over recent years due to a boom in Chinese exports of rare-earth metals, this low price may be unsustainable due to imbalances in the supply chain, and costs of tightening environmental considerations. The report estimates that the cost of dense neodymium-based magnets could fall by as much as US$15 per kilogramme of finished unit.
Manufacturers of high-power drive motors will be especially interested in this development. For example, there is already intense price competition in supplying to the automotive markets. This new technique offers potential for superior components to customers in the growing electric vehicle sector at little or no increase in price. The size of this market alone is estimated to be US$10 million today but at least US$200 million by the end of the decade.
The report speculates that the performance advantages offered by the rare-earth magnets manufactured by the new process could allow market entrants to undermine the position of industry leaders such as Sumitomo Special Metals and Magnaquench. These two companies currently have a strong grip on global production routes and formulations through their patents and cross-licenses.
Cambridge’s electrolytic process has been widely publicised for its original application in slashing the cost of producing the high-tech metal, titanium. However, it has the potential to affect the costs of a vast range of other metals and, perhaps more importantly, engineering materials such as magnets, superconductors and memory alloys. A major component of the process economics is the switch from costly refined metals, to cheaper oxides as feedstock. As a result it should find use in applications well beyond the one examined in this report.
Further information is available from www.oakdenehollins.co.uk the study is priced at US$3,250
Oakdene Hollins manages a number of research and development programmes funded by the UK Government and the research councils. The new manufacturing process, described in the study as the FFC Process, was aimed primarily at reducing the cost of Titanium production. However, independent analysis by Oakdene Hollins and others identified that applications in the magnet sector were likely to yield significant cost advantages.
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