Rare earth elements are an integral part of LED light bulbs, smartphones, magnets, wind turbines, solar panels, catalytic converters and radar equipment. They could also be the answer to safe nuclear power running on thorium fuel, which occurs in monazite, a rare earth mineral.
They’re also key components of motors in hybrid and electric vehicles. In 2010, to gain the upper hand in a territorial dispute with Japan, China instituted an embargo on rare earth elements to Japan.
In response to the embargo, Japan’s Kyodo News announced last February that 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.”
The car maker intends to start using the rare earth alternative in two years, which is a fast turnaround for an automotive redesign. No details are available about what the new methods and materials might be.
Earlier the same week of the announcement, the World Trade Organization (WTO) sided with the US, Japan and the European Union’s objections to China’s manipulating the supply and prices of its rare earth minerals to maintain it’s 95% monopoly of the world market for the commodities.
The WTO ruled China was unfairly limiting supplies to other countries while giving preferential pricing to its domestic market.
However, this international squabble could become moot—if Toyota has a viable alternative to rare metals and if that alternative has applications in other industrial processes.
from SmartPlanet Daily February 3, 2012