That's a good question, Ann. No sure there are other examples quite like this. When China started rationing the Rare Earth elements, they insisted they were rationing what they sold with the purpose of holding back enough to make sure their own industrial needs would be met. But then they held back on selling these materials to Japan when they had a fishing dispute with Japan. So apparently they're using their rationing practices for more than just ensuring domestic need.
@Jerry Dycus: I stand by my claim, as backed up by ghatch and Tesla Motors, that permanent magnet motors/generators, especially those employing rare earths, provide smaller, lighter, and more responsive devices for equivalent torque and power levels. I have worked directly with high performance control of both induction and permanent-magnet motors for 25 years now, and the introduction of rare-earth magnets has been pretty revolutionary in a lot of fields. The reduction in size and increase in performance of brushless servo motors has been startling.
The Tesla webpage linked by ghatch does a pretty good job of explaining why they use an induction motor, but omits the last step. For them, being able to modulate the rotor magnetic field strenght ("field weakening") permits them to trade off torque vs speed in software and electronics, meaning they don't need a mechanical transmission. A parallel hybrid like the Prius has the transmission function built into its "torque converter", so it is more effective for them to use a compact rare-earth-magnet motor.
@Tim: rare earths are indeed used in a wide variety of other applications. Interesingly, because they are found together and have to be carefully separated, the demand dynamics of each individual element, indirectly affect the supply dynamics of them all. Quite a complex business!
@Jerry dycus: the alleged embargo against Japan in September 2010 (or rather the subsequent publicity generated) certainly didn't help matters, but price increases for exported rare earths were well underway by that point, triggered by the July 2010 export-quota announcement that showed there would be a 40% drop year on year. This can be clearly seen in the historical spot-price curves for individual rare-earth products.
I disagree with your comment relating to variable-field motors and Tesla Motors. Rare-earth permanent-magnet (REPM) systems see higher efficiencies, generate less heat and greater torque densities than induction machines - as acknowleged by Tesla themselves . Tesla uses their three-phase AC induction motor for other (sports-performance / control) reasons, not because it "couldn't be done" with rare earths.
In addition to shortages in regards to rare earth magnets, rare earth elements are used in multiple pigments for use in plastics and other things. As the cost of the pigments goes up, the end product goes up as well.
China's retoric and refusal to load Japanese ships with already paid for REE's was the main factor in cost run up then speculators ran with it.
We did well for 120 yrs without REE's in e motors/generators so it's not a big deal.
As for REE's making motors lighter, smaller is not true, Variable field motors are far more flexable and more power/lb is why you'll rarely see them where real power is needed in a small package. Tesla's motor is an example that couldn't be done with REE's.
REE's have thermal and too heavy guass problems as either can damage REE and other PM's.
Rob, your analysis makes a lot of sense. I wonder how many other industries have been similarly affected by China undercutting competitors on prices, which wipes out the competitors, then cutting back on production and creating a shortage. Considering what a huge percentage of the world's manufacturing now occurs in, or is controlled by, China, I'd guess that there might be several other parallel situations.
The ironic aspect of the Rare Earths is that we had a healthy flow before China started selling their production at low prices. Both the Molycorp. and the Austrialian mines closed because they couldn't compete with China's low prices. Unfortunately, it takes time and expense to ramp back up. So when China started rationing, we were stuck.
Classical economics separately recognizes the propensities to Save, Consume, or Hoard; the latter grows stronger partly in protest at poor returns on Saving. Hoarding of commodities has been on the rise ever since the credit crunch and central banks' policy responses crashed the discount rates. Commodity prices also fundamentally depend on the balance between the goods' salability and hoardability. Trade restrictions (or rumors thereof) reduce salability, leaving the good relatively more preferable for hoarding. The bubble behavior over last summer seems clearly to be a result of governments' actions, and not to changing fundamentals. But it had the effect of mobilizing decision makers, bankrupting out-of-date plans, and forcing the industry to discover the fundamental scarcity which it will have to confront in order to scale up to the dreams planners have for electric drives etc.
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Focus on Fundamentals consists of 45-minute on-line classes that cover a host of technologies. You learn without leaving the comfort of your desk. All classes are taught by subject-matter experts and all are archived. So if you can't attend live, attend at your convenience.