GE and GM to Develop Rare Earths for EV Production

Two of the most high-profile global companies have committed to developing rare earth materials for electric vehicle production. General Electric and GM are partnering with a company called AMREE, which has been working on refining these materials for over two decades. The goal is to develop the material in an environmentally sustainable way that will be economically viable across GE’s entire range of products.

The rare earth materials that are currently in use in the industry are neodymium, praseodymium, dysprosium and terbium. They’re used to make magnets for electric motors. The material is not only critical to the motor performance but also to its ability to function at high temperatures ranging from 140C – 800C. The biggest issue with the rare earth materials available currently is that they are sourced from China, who – in 2010 – restricted supply of these critical elements to other world producers. To reduce the need for these foreign supplies, companies have been developing new technologies using recycled magnets and components.

AMREE has already raised $35 million in funds for its rare earth division, named Ucore Rare Metals. The company is developing synthetic material that will be able to match the performance of natural minerals. So far, the company has been able to produce one tonne of material which can yield up to 3 tonnes once it is made into magnets. This magnetic material is currently being used in sensors for General Electric’s new energy storage products.

The new funding round will help AMREE to secure more commercial deals with other manufacturers, who are also looking for ways to reduce their reliance on Chinese rare earth materials. The manufacturing processes for this synthetic material is still not at the level of natural minerals but the company has set a goal to begin producing 3,000 tonnes of material every year by 2015.

GM is also trying develop its own rare earth materials, after it partnered with the U.S. Department of Energy to launch a project called LARE (Lightweight and Rare Earth Resources for Advanced Manufacturing). The goal of the project is to reduce the use of critical materials in transportation as well as power generation. It’s not yet clear how much money GM will invest in this project as the company has not yet disclosed any information.

GM’s product development chief, Mary Barra said that GM would throw its full weight behind the project. She also said that rare earths are a great example of how GM can tie in research and development with manufacturing and vehicle engineering to create new products and improve existing ones.

AMREE has already raised over $100 million since it was founded in 1996. The company currently has five projects that are developing products with Ucore’s rare earth material.

AMREE said that it would be making more announcements about the commercialization deals for these projects “in due course” but did not mention any specific or definite timeframes. Those deals include a development deal with a German company, a commercial agreement with a South African company and a research project with Michigan State University to develop environmentally friendly aircraft engines.

Recently, AMREE has been working closely with General Electric as well as GE Global Research scientists based in Schenectady, New York. The scientists have been working together on the development of the material for two years now, with General Electric providing technical expertise to the project.

GE has already used this material for magnetic applications in aircraft engines, storage batteries and energy generation units.

AMREE is also developing the same material for use in phones, phones and laptops. The company said that it would “announce significant milestones” in these areas during April 2013.

Ucore is a private company and it has not yet disclosed the value of its equity. General Electric said that it would provide partial funding to AMREE and use some of its products as well.