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Rare Earth-Free Electric Motor Developers on the Rise, But It’s Not as Easy as It Looks

November 16, 2012 0 Comments
Bryant Arnold Electric Car

By Bryant Arnold at

Last weekend when I posted my story on switched reluctance motor technology and noted that the subject was ripe for hype, given the rare earth magnet situation, I had no idea that this week a globally prestigious publication like The Economist would weigh in with a nice article titled “Reluctant heroes, An electric motor that does not need expensive rare-earth magnets“. Now, everywhere I look somebody is extolling the virtues of rare earth-free electric motor technologyas the savior of the emerging hybrid and electric vehicle industry.

Of course, when a publication like The Economist, with a 1.5 million circulation addresses a topic it gets truly global attention. As one would expect, they did an excellent job reporting what’s behind switched reluctance motor technology and carefully noting that while work on switched reluctance motors may produce high power, high efficiency traction motors there is no assurance they may be commercialized.
gasoline vs rare earth-free switched reluctance electric motor

Again, it would seem that the key element for success in terms of switched reluctance motors here would be the control technology. In this case, the silicon is more important than the steel and if the controller can overcome some of the previous switched reluctance deficiencies like noise and cogging at low speeds (which would be totally unacceptable in a vehicle) and do it within the appropriate economic parameters that would help assure a successful motor solution.
gasoline vs rare earth-free switched reluctance electric motor

But, (and it’s a big but) successful performance by a new motor technology developer may not correlate to successful commercial adoption by a major player in the auto industry. Why’s that, you say? For some reason that escapes most people, compared to designing, engineering, testing, tooling up for and building an internal combustion engine with its now incredibly complex computerized fuel delivery and diagnostic systems that building an electric motor is a walk in the park. And some will say the Big 3 and others don’t have electric motor experience. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The average car today contains scores of electric motors. A luxury car can have over 100. They’re used for windshield wipers, windows, seats, ventilation, cruise control, engine cooling, power steering assist, engine starters, washer pump, fuel pump, ABS pumps, antenna, sunroof, etc. It’s likely most of the analog appearing gauges on your dashboard have their indicator needles rotated by tiny servo motors. So, over the years the auto industry has been designing in and buying gazillions of electric motors. They know as much about electric motors as many of their suppliers.

electric motors used in automobiles

The big kicker is that companies like GM consider their powertrains a core competency, whether based on internal combustion or converting electrons to do work. That’s why in January, 2010, GM invested $111 million for a White Marsh, MD building addition and process equipment to build high-volume global rear-drive electric motors, “a core technology for hybrids and electric vehicles”. With 241 employees in a 471,000 sq. ft. building they’re nicely committed to developing and building their own electric motors.

Coincidentally, the MIT Technology Review today published a story by Jessica Leber titled, “General Motors Raises Its Ante on Electric Cars“. She reports that, “by 2017, GM wants to build as many as 500,000 cars a year with electrification technologies” and contextually relates, “that’s not trivial, considering that today GM sells nine million vehicles annually.” She also reports that the all-electric Chevy Spark EV will ship to dealers mid-2013 and its electric motor powertrain will be manufactured in GM’s Maryland facility.

I’ll go out on a pretty stubby limb to speculate that today there are more engineers designing electric motors employed by the automotive Big 3 than there are in the entire U.S. electric motor industry. So, for an out of left field startup electric motor technology company to be able to 1) develop a truly innovative and differentiated electric motor technology, 2) figure out how to put it into production quickly at the appropriate volumes, and 3) book the order with an established auto manufacturer the odds are pretty long. Of course, the payoff could be pretty amazing, too, so I guess there will always be hope. That’s what makes this industry fascinating.

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About the Author:

John Morehead is an experienced marketing, sales and business development leader. He’s passionate about motion control and advanced motor technology and shares that enthusiastically with those he encounters and many more through his myriad marketing initiatives. This blog is one more tool to be able to spread the word about news, information and insights on the motion control, electric motors, drives and automation fields. Your comments or questions on posts are welcome.

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