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China’s rare-earth stranglehold spurs rise in alternative motor technologies

19 March, 2013

China’s move to corner the market for rare-earth minerals (REMs) has prompted manufacturers of low-voltage industrial motors to adopt alternative technologies that reduce or eliminate the use of these materials, spurring new growth in the motors market, according to a forthcoming report from IMS Research, now part of IHS.

The report estimates that the global market for IE4 “super premium efficiency” LV motors will be worth $418.2m by the end of 2015, up 153% from $165.4m in 2012. Emerging lower-cost alternatives to traditional permanent magnet synchronous motors (PMSMs) that achieve IE4 levels of efficiency have added momentum to this niche market.

The graph (above) shows IHS’s predictions for global revenues from the sale of IE4 LV motors (bargraph, left-hand axis) and the market’s growth rate (line graph, right-hand axis).

IE4 motors based on conventional PMSM designs have relied heavily on rare-earth materials, such as neodymium and dysprosium, which are needed to produce the high-powered magnets that allow motor efficiencies above IE3 and Nema Premium levels.

But PMSM motor manufacturers have been hit hard in recent years by export caps on rare-earths imposed by China, the world’s leading producer and processor of these minerals, which caused neodymium magnet prices to soar in 2011. Some degree of stabilisation has returned since mid-2012, but prices still remain high and represent a cost that motor manufacturers have to pass on to their customers.

“Similar to the samarium cobalt (SmCo) magnet sourcing scarcity of the 1980s, which hastened the development and introduction of neodymium magnets to the marketplace, China’s tightening of its grip on REM exports has caused manufacturers to seek alternative IE4 technologies,” says IHS’s senior analyst for motors and mechanical power transmission, Mark Meza.

“Manufacturers have been very creative in dealing with magnet sourcing issues by producing drive technologies that reduce the number of neodymium magnets needed in a PMSM motor, or by producing IE4-class motors that use no magnets,” he adds.




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