When it comes to motors, rare earth elements changed the game. However, unchecked shortages and price hikes over the last two years have left designers wondering what to do and where to go to secure supplies.
In this post, the first in a five-part Design News series on rare earth materials, we’ll examine the market forces behind the pricing instabilities, and we’ll review four approaches to mitigating the effects.
Between January 2010 and January 2012, prices for the rare earth elements (REEs) used in permanent magnets soared. (Source: Technology Metals Research LLC)
First, some background: In the 1960s, neodymium enabled the development of permanent magnets many times stronger than ferrite versions. The addition of dysprosium also allowed magnets to survive high temperatures without demagnetization. This yielded smaller, lighter motors that were available at reasonable prices and capable of surviving extended high-temperature operation.
Rare earth motors rapidly became the go-to technology for OEMs everywhere.
Then, in 2010, the price of rare earth elements began to soar, altering the cost basis for a wide range of products seemingly overnight and sending tremors throughout the industry. Prices have dropped from their August 2011 peak, when they were changing on a weekly or even daily basis, but several factors indicate that they will remain elevated from previous numbers. Let's take a closer look at the market and some design approaches that can minimize the effect of rare earth pricing on your system.
Nice article, Kristen. And it's an important subject. I know Molycorp had come back online -- now that rare earth elements command a significant price again, but I didn;t realize that dysprosium would not come online for years yet. I know Australian mines have come back online. Will Australia help with some of these shortages?
Kristen, thanks for the overview on rare earth metals and specifically the background on what's causing the shortages. I think the three scenarios you keyed in on at the end of your post could be really instrumental for engineers looking for alternatives to these materials or at least a strategy for lessening their dependence on them for their designs. Given the state of the world economy and global tensions, constant price spikes seem to be the new order. I'm sure I speak for our audience when I say I'd love to hear more about each of those three strategies and I'm hoping subsequent posts in your series hit on these tactics.
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