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Next Generation Electric Motor Being Developed At Toyota

January 17, 2011

A new type of electric motor is being researched by the auto-building giant Toyota Motor Corp., maker of the hybrid vehicle Prius, with plans to cut its dependence on rare earth metals and lower production costs, a company spokesman said Monday.

The world’s premier auto maker relies heavily on China to produce 97 percent of the global output of rare earth materials needed for many of its high-tech products, including the current generation of hybrid gasoline-electric motors.

The company has not released any specific uses or timeline for the new motor, says Toyota spokesman Paul Nolasco.

“Toyota is always looking for a reduction in resources and in terms of costs,” Nolasco told the Associated Press (AP).

The blockage of exports of several exotic metals late last year after a diplomatic spat sent the high-tech sector reeling. Prices have increased greatly as China gradually tightens its output, resuming exports, albeit reduced, in November.

China has been gradually reducing the amount of rare earths it sends overseas. Earlier this month a state newspaper said the country would toughen environmental standards, which could raise prices globally. China’s 2010 export quota of 24,280 tons was a 30 percent reduction from the previous year.

The auto-building giant is also developing an electric SUV with U.S. luxury electric car maker Tesla Motors Inc. and is heavily invested in gasoline-electric hybrid technology. An executive said last year it will begin selling a completely electric vehicle in 2012 in the U.S., Japan and Europe.

Analysts said production of such vehicles was still small enough that there was little short-term risk from a shortage of rare earths, but this could change quickly.

“This isn’t a major issue right now, but as these types of cars become more popular, it becomes a big risk if supply is limited or cut off,” Mizuho Investors Securities auto analyst Ryoichi Saito told AP.

He said it made sense for companies that make high-tech products to be developing alternatives, given trade uncertainties with China. Japan has also actively pursued deals around Asia to develop alternative sources. The U.S., Canada and Australia have rare earths but stopped mining them in the 1990s as lower-cost Chinese supplies became available.

China is estimated to control about 30 percent of global rare earths deposits.

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