Electric car development is putting a more significant strain than ever on the world's supply of neodymium, an element used in the manufacture of electric motors. Toyota believes that in just a couple years, demand for the mineral will outpace supply, which is why it's been developing magnets for the motors in its electric and hybrid vehicles that use 50 percent less of the stuff.
This kind of development is extremely important for a company of Toyota's size, particularly when you consider its plans to offer an electric version of every vehicle in its lineup by 2025. To offset the properties of neodymium Toyota is using cerium and lanthanum, both of which are much cheaper.
Neodymium is desirable in magnets because of its tolerance for heat and its ability to maintain magnetization. Just swapping half of the neodymium for cerium and lanthanum wouldn't solve anything as both would lead to increased degradation of the magnetic properties. To get around this, Toyota had to spend some serious coin on developing new technologies that help to bring motor performance back up to that of neodymium alone.
Part of that technology comes in the form of grain refinement. Toyota was able to come up with a process to shape the grains of material that make up the magnet into tightly packed, uniform crystals. Next, because the grains are uniform (think bricks in a wall or Legos), the grains only have to be coated with expensive neodymium, where previously it was mixed throughout, requiring more to get the same effect. Lastly, the alloy of cerium and lanthanum that make up the core of each grain is a specific alloy, 1:3 lanthanum to cerium to be exact, and this mix produces the best resistance to demagnetization.
Now that all the science is out of the way, the cool thing about this magnet technology is that it isn't only relevant to cars. Toyota hopes to use this technology in robots, appliances and anywhere else that would benefit from a strong, lower cost high-temp motor. It also expects to see these new motors enter production vehicles sometime around 2020.