Tesla's Model 3 motor design may strain world's supply of neodymium

 cnet.com  3/14/2018 9:33:04 PM   Kyle Hyatt

Tesla makes a lot of electric vehicles. It's going to make even more once Model 3 production gears up fully, but it's one model in particular that has some concerned. Unlike its more exclusive siblings, the Tesla Model 3 comes equipped with a neodymium-intensive permanent magnet motor, which will put even more strain on the global market for the mineral, according to metals industry experts quoted by Reuters.

What is neodymium and why is it important in this application? It's the strongest permanent magnet material yet discovered. A stronger magnet makes for a more powerful and efficient electric motor for its relative size. The problem is that neodymium is what's known as a rare-earth mineral and as that term suggests, it's not the most abundant element on the planet.

Tesla Model 3 Long Range

The permanent magnet motor in the Model 3 uses more rare-earth minerals than previous Tesla designs.

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

The world production of neodymium is under strain already with the increased development and more widespread adoption of electric vehicles. Currently, there is almost enough production to meet demand but prices of the element are rising and some analysts worry that demand may seriously outstrip production in as little as a few years.

To help offset this, manufacturers are looking for ways to reduce the amount of neodymium required for their permanent magnet motors without losing any of the power and efficiency it grants. Toyota, for example, has invested heavily in new motor technology that reduces its need for neodymium by around 20 percent by substituting other, more common and specially processed minerals.

Another problem with neodymium is that the world's largest exporter of the stuff is China, and The People's Republic has been known to freeze neodymium exports in the past for geopolitical reasons. Add in the fact that it is attempting to reduce its level of air pollution and supplies could slow further, putting even more strain on the EV industry.

Not all electric vehicles use permanent magnet motors. The Model X and Model S, for example, all use induction motors, which are less resource-intensive to produce -- and cheaper too.

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