Environmental arguments aside, the weak link in the electric car story might be a soft metal called neodymium. You may have heard of Nd:YAG lasers. The Nd stands for neodymium. Another major use is in permanent magnets, such as those used in electric cars. China controls most neodymium production and is now restricting exports and boosting tariffs. As a result of China’s actions and demand from electric car makers, neodymium prices are now close to $90/kg, up from $19.12 in 2009.
Efforts to find new global sources for the metal are accelerating. A Japanese joint venture will look for neodymium in Vietnam. An article in the Denver Post says there is a new “gold rush” for rare earth metals such as neodymium in Colorado and other Western states.
And not surprisingly, engineers are at work trying to improve the performance of induction motors in which magnetism is created by applying an electrical charge. The problem with induction motors is their poor efficiency and their large size compared to motors using permanent magnets. Continental AG, the largest noncaptive electric motor supplier for autos, is also working on alternative technical solutions.
Artificially created metamaterials are already appearing in niche applications like electronics, communications, and defense, says a new report from Lux Research. How quickly they become mainstream depends on cost-effective manufacturing methods, which will include additive manufacturing.
SpaceX has 3D printed and successfully hot-fired a SuperDraco engine chamber made of Inconel, a high-performance superalloy, using direct metal laser sintering (DMLS). The company's first 3D-printed rocket engine part, a main oxidizer valve body for the Falcon 9 rocket, launched in January and is now qualified on all Falcon 9 flights.
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and MIT have 3D-printed a new class of metamaterials that are both exceptionally light and have exceptional strength and stiffness. The new metamaterials maintain a nearly constant stiffness per unit of mass density, over three orders of magnitude.
Smart composites that let the material's structural health be monitored automatically and continuously are getting closer to reality. R&D partners in an EU-sponsored project have demonstrated what they say is the first complete, miniaturized, fiber-optic sensor system entirely embedded inside a fiber-reinforced composite.
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