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* Hybrid motors, batteries big users of rare earth metals
* As output of hybrid cars climbs, supply crunch looms
By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES, Aug 31 The Prius hybrid automobile is
popular for its fuel efficiency, but its electric motor and
battery guzzle rare earth metals, a little-known class of elements
found in a wide range of gadgets and consumer goods.
That makes Toyota's market-leading gasoline-electric
hybrid car and other similar vehicles vulnerable to a supply
crunch predicted by experts as China, the world's dominant rare
earths producer, limits exports while global demand swells.
Worldwide demand for rare earths, covering 15 entries on the
periodic table of elements, is expected to exceed supply by some
40,000 tonnes annually in several years unless major new
production sources are developed. One promising U.S. source is a
rare earths mine slated to reopen in California by 2012.
Among the rare earths that would be most affected in a
shortage is neodymium, the key component of an alloy used to make
the high-power, lightweight magnets for electric motors of hybrid
cars, such as the Prius, Honda Insight and Ford Focus, as well as
in generators for wind turbines.
Close cousins terbium and dysprosium are added in smaller
amounts to the alloy to preserve neodymium's magnetic properties
at high temperatures. Yet another rare earth metal, lanthanum, is
a major ingredient for hybrid car batteries.
Production of both hybrids cars and wind turbines is expected
to climb sharply amid the clamor for cleaner transportation and
energy alternatives that reduce dependence on fossil fuels blamed
for global climate change.
Toyota has 70 percent of the U.S. market for vehicles powered
by a combination of an internal-combustion engine and electric
motor. The Prius is its No. 1 hybrid seller.
Jack Lifton, an independent commodities consultant and
strategic metals expert, calls the Prius "the biggest user of rare
earths of any object in the world."
Each electric Prius motor requires 1 kilogram (2.2 lb) of
neodymium, and each battery uses 10 to 15 kg (22-33 lb) of
lanthanum. That number will nearly double under Toyota's plans to
boost the car's fuel economy, he said.
Toyota plans to sell 100,000 Prius cars in the United States
alone for 2009, and 180,000 next year. The company forecasts sales
of 1 million units per year starting in 2010.
As China's industries begin to consume most of its own rare
earth production, Toyota and other companies are seeking to secure
reliable reserves for themselves.
Reuters reported last year that Japanese firms are showing
strong interest in a Canadian rare earth site under development at
Thor Lake in the Northwest Territories.
A Toyota spokeswoman in Los Angeles said the automaker would
not comment on its resource development plans. But media accounts
and industry blogs have reported recently that Toyota has looked
at rare earth possibilities in Canada and Vietnam.
(Editing by Alan Elsner and Mary Milliken)