Unintended consequences, hybrid vehicles edition

Lynne Kiesling

As the demand for hybrid vehicles increases, the consequences of that increased demand flow through to markets for their inputs, some of which are finite natural resources themselves. Increased hybrid vehicle production raises the demand for rare metals, increasing their prices and threatening short-run shortages.

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. …

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.

Boy, those fundamental economics principles are a bear, aren’t they? Can’t we get them repealed or something … ?


2 thoughts on “Unintended consequences, hybrid vehicles edition

  1. “Boy, those fundamental economics principles are a bear”…..yup.

    Just like the ones that say a change in price leads to different production methods becoming financially feasible.

    The thing about rare earths is that they’re not actually rare. Just boringly expensive to extract from a number of potential sources.

    I have a plan on my desk that is technically entirely feasible. In fact, near trivial in complexity as far as mining industry goes. We could extract around 20,000 tonnes a year of rare earths from the waste stream of a current process used worldwide. With the added beneit that we’d be converting that waste from its currently highly toxic ph 13 to ph 7: essentially turn it into dirt.

    The thing is, it isn’t *profitable* at current prices.

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