Friday, March 20, 2009

Driving the Empire

An odd place for C&S to be lurking, I know, but the March issue of Motor Trend carries this article by Frank Markus that briefly speculates about the problems the U.S. motor industry will face in building electric motors.

Obtaining the materials to make electric motors, for example, may again prove problematic as it did in the 1970s, when cobalt was the rare-earth metal of choice for making strong-field permanent magnet rotors. Then as now, most of the world's cobalt came from Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). Political unrest there disrupted cobalt production and, consequently, electric-motor manufacture. This scare prompted GM and Japan's Sumitomo Corporation to develop neodymium as a replacement for cobalt. Today neodymium is used in the permanent-magnet traction motors propelling most hybrid and electric vehicles. Guess where 95 percent of it comes from? China. Think they'll share their hoard equitably with the rest of us as demand ramps up? Not likely. In fact, they're already talking about curtailing exports. Advanced AC-induction motors requiring no rare-earth metals, like the Chorus Meshcon covered in January, may be an effective mallet for whacking the Chinese neodymium mole.

And what about those ballyhooed lithium-ion batteries? Sad to say, the lithium-carbonate or lithium-chloride salts needed to make them don't carpet the Great Plains or Rocky Mountains either. The majority of the known reserves are found in high-altitude deserts in the Andes, with the lion's share in Bolivia, whose far-leftist government is proving increasingly inhospitable to international mining companies. China has access to reserves near Tibet, but electrifying the world's vehicle fleet with lithium-ion batteries will cause the rest of us to stage a minerals rush on South America.

Markus sees two alternative technologies that could be used instead: A zinc-air fuel cell and a vanadium-boron-air fuel cell.

. . . last summer, researchers at U-Mass Boston announced that their vanadium-boron-air fuel cell (VB2-air) boasted double the practical energy density of gasoline! Eureka! They've discovered the holy grail of electric-vehicle range! Not only that, but vanadium is found in magnetite, which is abundant in the U.S., Mexico, and several countries in Europe; and the two biggest producers of boron are Turkey and the U.S.

There's still a way to go with the technology, but failure to develop it could lead to some interesting times, as the Chinese say.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I saw that Jeremy "Top Git" Clarkson reading Motor Trends once. While he was driving safely at 150 mph on the M1. Only joking.