The global auto industry’s pursuit of electric vehicle (EV) motors devoid of or with minimal rare earth content is intensifying, with European, U.S., and Japanese automakers and suppliers racing to find alternatives to the commonly used rare earth-based permanent magnets. While traditional motors with rare earth magnets have been efficient in powering EVs, the push for sustainability and reduced reliance on China, a major rare earth producer, has driven the exploration of alternative motor technologies.
Despite being dominated by China in the mining and processing of rare earth metals, automakers are now focusing on motors that either eliminate or significantly reduce rare earth content. Tesla made headlines by announcing its intention to cut rare earths from its next-gen EVs, and other major players like General Motors, Jaguar Land Rover, and BorgWarner are actively researching or have developed motors with low-to-zero rare earth content. Technologies such as magnet-free externally excited synchronous machines (EESMs), generating a magnetic field using electric current, have become commercially viable, challenging the dominance of traditional rare-earth-based motors.
Nissan, for instance, has adopted a dual strategy, developing both newer EESM motors and permanent magnet motors with a gradual reduction in rare earth content. This strategic shift is not only driven by the desire to diversify rare earth sourcing but also by sustainability goals, as the extraction and refining of rare earths involve solvents and generate toxic waste.
German supplier ZF has taken significant strides by developing an EESM motor that matches the size and performance of permanent magnet motors. This innovation is considered a crucial step toward reducing dependence on China in the EV motor supply chain. ZF is in discussions with automakers from the U.S., Europe, and China, aiming to have the motor in production model EVs within the next two years. The move toward rare earth-free motors aligns with the industry’s broader sustainability objectives, providing a more environmentally friendly alternative.