Rare-earth metals in electric vehicles at COP26 | SaveOnEnergy®

COP26: The problem with rare-earth metals in electric vehicles

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Electric vehicles (EVs) will be the type of cars we all drive in the not-too-distant future. Many places are phasing out combustion vehicles and putting deadlines on when traditional motor vehicles will no longer be sold. 

However, not all EVs are created equal. Like with a lot of green technology, the typical eco-friendly EV is not as sustainable and environmentally friendly as we think. In other words, EVs have been the subject of greenwashing. In this session at the COP26 called Novel Electrification through Advanced Sustainable Technologies, panelists examined the problem with EVs and how to make them better. 

Rare-earth metals in EVs

Compared to combustion engines, EVs still have the upper hand when it comes to carbon emissions. But, as panelist Peter Fleet put it, environmental impact is more than just CO2 emissions. So, what is the problem with EVs? The main issue is rare-earth metals. Fleet is the Chairman of Advanced Electric Machines Group Ltd (AEM), a company that creates sustainable electric motors without using rare-earth metals. 

How standard EV engines work

To understand how rare-earth metals are a part of EVs, it helps to know how EV engines operate. A permanent magnet machine (PMM) powers the drive system in battery-power EVs. But PMMs require rare earth metals, such as neodymium or dysprosium. PMMs also need a copper coil for the electric current. 

The problem with these materials is that these rare-earth metals and copper have negative environmental impacts, such as the ‘black sludge’ that is a waste byproduct of mining. How bad is the impact? According to Fleet, up to 1.4 tons of radioactive waste is produced for every ton of rare-earth metals mined. 

What materials in EVs are unsustainable?

  • Rare-earth metals
  • Copper
  • Batteries

Why are these materials harmful to the environment?

  • Finite supply
  • Mining waste
  • Inability to recycle materials 

Less recycling equals more waste

The batteries that are used in EVs have a negative environmental impact as well. Disposing batteries is a big problem, and recycling efforts are small. “We currently recycle globally only 17% of the electronic waste that we produce,” said Fleet. 

The reason behind low recycling rates is that these materials must be separated before recycling can occur. Separation of the complex electric components is usually either very difficult or impossible. For example, copper must be carefully removed from steel before aluminum can be melted down, which is a tedious and time-consuming process. 

Making transport greener

Despite these issues, customers are migrating to EVs very quickly. There is an enormous scaling up of electrification. Fleet said, “last year globally, the world built over three million EVs,” and he predicts that number is projected to go up 40 times in the next 20 years. In response, 

several industry leaders in the panel offered solutions to making road transportation greener and more sustainable, including:

  • Decarbonizing road haulage
  • Improving power electronics
  • Recycling magnetic materials
  • Creating an EV engine without rare-earth metals

Decarbonizing road haulage

David Thackray, the Sales and Marketing Director of Tevva, discussed the challenges of electrifying heavy commercial vehicles. Tevva makes electric trucks designed to haul products over long distances. Tevva’s biggest hurdle is making their price the same or better than a diesel engine in order for the company to be financially sustainable. 

Thackray said his company has the  “goal of having in service 100,000 of our battery-electric trucks by the year 2030.” If they accomplish this objective, he estimates, “those vehicles will have eliminated 10 million tons of CO2.” Part of the key to Tevva’s technology is the use of lithium-ion phosphate batteries, which are known to be more stable and longer-lasting, and adding a hydrogen fuel cell battery to extend mileage for drivers. Lithium-ion batteries are also often used in the best solar batteries due to their favorable properties.   

Improving power electronics

Power electronics are devices that control or convert energy in electric devices. Often, these electronics work behind the scenes. You may not see them, but they control many devices and energy-producing functions, such as wind turbines, cellphones, EVs, and solar panels.

Because of their ‘hidden’ status, Professor Mark Johnson, Director of the ESPRC Centre for Power Electronics at the University of Notts, refers to power electronics as an “invisible technology.” Improving power electronics is a building block to making EVs greener.  

However, there are a number of challenges in the production of power electronics, such as:

  • Reducing cost
  • Making them more efficient
  • Making them more flexible and easy to use
  • Creating a sustainable product lifecycle

Recycling magnetic materials

Professor Allan Walton, the Founding Director of Hypromag, discussed the challenges of recycling the magnetic materials used in EVs. Hypromag specializes in recycling rare earth materials, such as magnets. 

The way that magnets break down makes it difficult to separate them from surrounding materials. Current disposal processes cause rare-earth magnets to break apart and stick to the ferrous scrap material in waste. As a result, this waste material is shredded at the recycling plant in bulk, meaning that it is never recycled even though it is valuable material. 

Hypromag aims to separate the magnet before this shredding process and then extract and repurpose the magnetic material. However, Walton warned that recycling would only provide a portion of the magnets needed for production. New magnetic material will still need to be produced. Therefore, he said the industry needs  “to balance is the positive environmental impact of those materials in use against the environmental impact of their extraction.” 

Creating an EV engine without rare-earth metals

According to Professor James Widmer, the CEO of AEM, the final key to making EV transport greener is to build an electric engine that does not require the use of rare earth materials. Widmer’s company currently produces an electric motor that “is rare earth-free and easily recycled” for commercial vehicles only. 

He said this sustainable model is cost-effective, uses no copper or magnets, and is fully recyclable.  But, without government intervention, he is skeptical of how quickly this new technology will be widely adopted. Widmer said, “Let’s put in place the legislation necessary to prevent us from polluting the earth. Let’s demand that electric vehicle makers select the correct sustainable materials and design their products to be recycled, meaning that we have a truly green sustainable future.”

Want to learn more about green energy solutions in the travel sector? Watch the complete discussion here or read more COP26 coverage


Lisa Iscrupe is a writer and editor who specializes in energy, the deregulated electricity market, and solar power. Her work has been referenced by CNN, The Daily MBA, The Media Bulletin, and other national sources. Follow her at @lisaiscrupe.