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Toyota working on new rare-earth-free electric motor technology

By on January 19, 2011 4:24 PM
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Intent on finding a more cost-effective solution for powering its future hybrid and electric vehicles, Toyota has confirmed that is well along the development process of an electric motor that does not require the use of permanent magnets made from a variety of costly and scarce "rare-earth metals." An integral part of today's basic motor formula, these metals -- most notably neodymium -- are for the most part sourced from and priced by China, which has been moving of late to increasing restrict their availability.

Toyota's efforts are focused on creating an electric motor that would use non-permanent elctromagnets, the kind commonly found in many household appliances. The historic weakness of these electromagnets, which are much cheaper and easier to produce, is that they lack the same level of size-related power capability as their more exotic kin. Takeshi Uchiyamada, Toyota's global chief engineer admitted that his company already has used the technology to build a prototype motor, but finding a way to properly control it remains a challenge. So far Toyota has offered no time frame for the first use of this new type of smaller, lighter and cheaper induction motor, save for indicating that it likely would be in the not-too-distant future.

Toyota isn't the only automaker working on developing electric motors that use electromagnets. General Motors is engaging in a similar program, as is Continental AG. One of these new Continental motors reportedly will appear in a production vehicle this fall, although no word yet on which automaker will produce it.

Last fall, Japan's government-backed New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) in conjunction with Hokkaido University, displayed its own next-generation electric motor for automobiles that uses common ferrite-based magnets which only cost about one-twentieth of their rare-earth counterparts. The NEDO research team says managed to increase the relative strength of the field created by these inexpensive induction magnets to come up with an alternative that can match the overall power output of today's motors. However, it admits that several issues still remain to be resolved and believes that the first commercial application of these motors is still several years away from actually hitting the streets.

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