Intelligent Energy

Toyota breaks out of China's rare earth shackles

Toyota breaks out of China's rare earth shackles

Posting in Energy

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. If you can't join 'em, innovate. Toyota has learned how to eliminate vital rare earth metals from cars, potentially turning China's stranglehold into a useless grip.

Rarin' to go: The Toyota Prius soon might not require rare earth metals.

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. And if you can't join 'em, innovate.

That's what Toyota Motor Corp. is doing as it develops an alternative technology that could trivialize China's stranglehold on the supply of rare earth metals that are vital to the company's Prius hybrid car and its electric vehicles.

Toyota "has developed a way to make hybrid and electric vehicles without the use of expensive rare earth metals, in which China has a near-monopoly," Reuters reported recently, citing a story from Japan's Kyodo News.

The $249 billion car maker could start to use the rare earth alternative in two years (fast for an automotive redesign), the story notes. Reuters does not provide any details on what the new method is, or on what materials it might entail.

Rare earths are key to the motors in hybrid and electric vehicles.  They are part and parcel to a broad array of industries and products such as LED light bulbs, smartphones, magnets, wind turbines, solar panels, catalytic converters and radar equipment, among many others. Rare earths could also underpin a safe nuclear future that runs on thorium fuel - thorium occurs in monazite, a mineral rich in rare earths.

But China produces 95 percent of the world's supply, and restricts exports. Earlier this week, the World Trade Organization ruled against China's stockpiling, and gave it time to comply. The U.S., European Union and other other countries had all joined the complaint saying China was unfairly limiting the supply while giving preferential pricing to its domestic market.

If Toyota is really onto an effective, economically viable substitute, then the whole matter might eventually become irrelevant, although there's no telling whether a rare earth replacement for a hybrid car could translate into other industrial applications.

Prius image from Toyota.

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure