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22 Dec 2020, 13:14
Edgar Meza

Europe's wind and e-car industry dependent on China's magnetic metals

WirtschaftsWoche

The green energy industry, in particular the wind energy sector, has become increasingly dependent on China for vital magnetic metals, writes Stefan Hajek in WirtschaftsWoche Online. Wind farms are set to play an ever larger role in the world’s future energy supply. Offshore wind power capacity in the EU alone is expected to increase 25-fold by 2050.

Magnetic metals such as neodymium are an essential component for wind turbines as well as for every modern electric motor, including those used in almost every electric car and plug-in hybrid. That’s leading to a bottleneck in two main sectors of the energy transition that very few political leaders and industry executives have addressed, Hajek notes. The extraction and processing of neodymium almost entirely in the hands of one country, China. The country already used its market power once before, in 2009, and paralysed entire industries worldwide with an export boycott on rare earths for computers.

Hajek warns that China could do this again in other industries in view of its ongoing trade conflicts with the US, which he says are not expected to ease under President-elect Joe Biden. “This time there is even more at stake than in 2009,” Hajek writes. “Without a sufficient supply of magnetic metals, climate protection will be much more difficult, protracted and much more expensive,” says Oliver Gutfleisch, professor of Functional Materials at the Technical University of Darmstadt. “The energy transition is also a material transition -- it doesn't work without certain raw materials. That is often overlooked.”

Bernd Schäfer and Andreas Klossek, who head the EU’s European Innovation and Technology (EIT) Raw Materials think tank, are sounding the alarm despite the fact that companies have not yet had any problems getting magnets. The US Geological Survey agency expects the demand for permanent magnets to double by 2029. "90 percent of e-cars and all hybrid cars have electric motors with permanent magnets," says Klossek. “We expect a supply shortfall of 65,000 tonnes per year for the ores required from 2030 onwards.”

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