CRU: Why Rare Earths are Vital for a Low Carbon Economy

Rare Earth metals have long been a niche, but strategically important part of the mining industry. Although there are seventeen rare earth elements with a wide variety of uses, two in particular (Neodymium and Praseodymium, or NdPr for short), are becoming increasingly important due to their link to the growth of a low carbon economy. CRU's recent work in rare earths has explored fundamental demand modelling, sources of new supply and cost competitiveness of new entrants.

Propulsion metals rather than battery metals?

Battery metals such as lithium and cobalt get a lot of attention as being critical for EVs, but propulsion metals such as NdPr are equally important. It doesn't matter what kind of battery a car uses, whether it is a hybrid, plug in hybrid or pure battery EV (or even it is fuel cell powered), electric motors will still be needed to drive the wheels.

Electric motors that use permanent magnets (as opposed to internally induced magnetic fields) to transfer electrical energy into rotational energy are more efficient. NdFeB (neodymium-iron-boron) permanent magnets are the strongest commercially available and so are the obvious technical choice. The typical current cost of NdPr in an EV is in the order of $50-60/vehicle, meaning a permanent magnet traction motor is a highly cost competitive method of boosting performance and cutting battery costs – so permanent magnet motors have captured over 90% of electric vehicle market, improving vehicle range and reducing the need for battery capacity.

But unique amongst technology metals, NdPr has a role at the other end of the value chain, as it is important to low carbon electricity generation. Offshore wind generation is playing an important global role in renewable energy, and one that is not directly linked to the EV theme. Offshore wind turbines tend to be larger and need to be designed for lower maintenance, so the dominant technology is direct drive, permanent magnet generators rather than gearboxes and induction generators found onshore (although technology here is changing too). CRU expects NdPr demand in this sector to more than double during the 2020s irrespective of EV trends.

Source: CRU
Date: Nov 29, 2019