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Fraunhofer lighthouse project: »Critical rare earths«

Mobility would be at a standstill without electric motors and their powerful permanent magnets. These owe their useful magnetic properties to the chemical elements neodymium and dysprosium, which belong to the group of rare earths. Sometimes called critical raw materials, nobody is sure whether the supply of rare earths will hold out in the medium and long term. But ensuring that these raw materials remain available on the world market is far from easy, and prices have been rising steadily for years. One of the factors affecting the expansion of emerging technologies is having these prized resources available in sufficient quantities. This is why Fraunhofer researchers in the »critical rare earths« lighthouse project are working on technologies to process rare earths more efficiently, reuse them or to find suitable substitutes.

Cell phones, laptops, electric motors and wind turbines all have one thing in common: manufacturing them is impossible without the use of rare earths. Electric-vehicle motors and wind-turbine generators in particular require powerful permanent magnets that contain rare earths such as neodymium and dysprosium. What makes these elements so sought after are the outstanding, hard-magnetic properties of the intermetallic bonds they can form with ferromagnetic elements such as iron or cobalt.

The historical label »rare earths« for chemical lanthanide elements is not entirely accurate because, in the cases of what are known as industrial raw materials, we are really dealing with metallic alloys or oxidic compounds made up of these elements. The word »rare« refers to the fact that they are found only in low concentrations amid commonly found minerals and can be obtained only at great effort. Taking into account the advance of green technologies expected over the coming years, it is already clear that a supply of rare earths will be crucial to industry in the medium and long term. This will mainly affect the automotive industry as well as the production of renewable energy, and will in turn threaten the expansion of emerging technologies. With around 48 percent of global reserves and around 85 percent output share at present, China dominates the global market. As an aspiring high-tech country, China has a significant self-interest in strategic metals, which is why it restricts exports to control availability. A consortium made up of seven Fraunhofer Institutes launched the Fraunhofer lighthouse project »critical rare earths« to help ensure a resource-efficient industrial supply of high-performance materials for permanent magnets.

Project goal: To halve the specific, primary demand for heavy rare earths

In the lighthouse project, the research team intends to demonstrate how to cut neodymium and dysprosium demand for permanent magnets in half by 2017. This presents the challenges of finding substitute materials, designing more efficient manufacturing technologies, and developing new ways of reusing or recycling electric motors. To demonstrate possible solutions, the researchers will produce two electric motors from magnetic materials that contain lower amounts of neodymium and dysprosium. First up will be a simple, small electric drive, followed later by a complex traction motor. This will be the first time the entire process chain has been modeled – from a theoretical forecast of new magnetic materials down to a functional electric motor. The sheer range of expertise the project team has at its disposal in achieving its goal is unique in Germany. The lighthouse project is divided into the following subprojects:

  • The search for substitute materials
  • More efficient permanent magnet production
  • Optimizing electric drives
  • Reusing and recycling raw materials and components
  • Calculating market opportunities and environmental impact

Fraunhofer project group IWKS is involved in essential working packages including the synthesis of substitute materials (reduction of dysprosium content) and the development of efficient production technologies (hot pressing) of permantent magnets for electric drives. Futhermore, IWKS supports a sustainable production, use and life cycle of the precious materials involved by considering recycling and re-use concepts as early as from the production phase on.