Steve Metcalf knows the power of a magnet. As a child, he figured out how to make his remote control car run faster. The key? Changing the positions of the magnets inside the electric motors.
Now, as a certified master technician and owner of several repair shops in Fort Worth, including Dealer Alternative at 701 White Settlement Road, he understands the increasingly large role of magnets to make cars work.
Rolling up windows, using an automatic seat adjuster or driving an electric car requires magnets, which are made out of rare earth elements. The magnets are becoming important in the electric car industry, Metcalf said, because they are small and powerful.
“They store more energy than just a regular magnet,” Metcalf said. “The electric motors, they want them to be as compact as they can.”
With demand comes a need for supply – and the automotive industry is hungry for magnets.
General Motors signed a contract with U.S. rare earth metals company MP Materials to,supply high-powered magnets to use in more than a dozen of its EVs, including the Hummer, Cadillac LYRIQ and Chevrolet Silverado.
Those specialty magnets are made from rare earth elements — 17 metals on the periodic table that can be found on the earth’s crust.
Everything from F-35 jets, cellphones, earbuds, catalytic converters and wind turbines rely on those 17 elements. The U.S. has fallen behind in the production and mining of the materials and relies on countries such as China, which the U.S. government considers a national security risk. Myanmar ranks behind the U.S. and China in rare earth production, but most of what it produces is exported to China.
What’s a rare earth element?
Rare earths are 17 elements on the periodic table. A car is one of the easiest places to see something made out of metals.
Matt Sloustcher, a spokesman for MP Materials, describes them as the building blocks of the modern economy. They are particularly useful as the economy increasingly relies on electric power.
What are each of the rare earth elements used for?
Scandium: aerospace components, aluminum alloys
Yttrium: Lasers, tv and computer displays, microwave filters
Lanthanum: Lasers, Tv and computer displays, microwave filters
Cerium: Catalytic converters, oil refining, glass-lens production
Praseodymium: Aircraft engines, carbon arc lights
Neodymium: Computer hard drivers, cell phones, high-power magnets
Promethium: Portable x-ray machines, nuclear batteries
Samarium: high-power magnets, ethanol, PCB cleansers
Europium: TV and computer displays, lasers, optical electronics
Gadolinium: Cancer therapy, MRi contrast agent
Terbium: Solid-state electronics, sonar systems
Dysprosium: Lasers, nuclear reactor control rods, high-power magnets
Holmium: High-power magnets, lasers
Erbium: fiber optics, nuclear reactor control rods
Thulium: x-ray machines, semiconductors
Ytterbium: Portable x-ray machines, lasers
Lutetium: chemical processing, LED light bulbs
“They are used essentially to make the world’s highest strength, most efficient magnets that are key to electrification of the global economy,” he said.
Despite what the name suggests, rare earth elements aren’t actually all that rare.
For example, cerium, which is used to make important vehicle parts like catalytic converters, is as abundant as copper and nickel, Rod Eggert, a professor who specializes in mineral economics at Colorado School of Mines said.
What is rare, Eggert said, is where the elements are efficiently mined and processed. At the moment, China accounts for 92% of the world’s magnet production and 58% of rare earth mining, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Energy.
China produces 92% of the rare earth magnets in the world. That’s making government officials, manufacturers and defense contractors a little uneasy.
“There have been very few instances in which we as either manufacturers in the United States or customers in the United States, have not actually obtained the rare earth materials,” Eggert said. “But it’s a risk particularly in the national security space.”
Last year, deliveries of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 jet were temporarily paused after the Pentagon found a magnet made with unauthorized material from China. Each jet uses 920 pounds of rare earth metals. Other military equipment like night-vision goggles also use the materials, according to the Science History Institute.
‘The concern is developing sustainable environmental impact’
Long-term concerns, Eggert said, are if the country will have enough rare earth materials to keep everyday products affordable, and if the metals can be mined in an environmentally responsible way, he said. The two main ways of extracting the metals release toxic chemicals. China recognized “cancer villages” as a result of nearby rare earth mining.
“Really the concern is developing sustainable environmental impact, environmental regulations for the mining,” said Eyad Massad, professor and director of Global Partnerships for Texas A&M University’s Engineering Experiment Station.
Researchers are starting to find alternative ways to mine the elements without releasing chemicals, such as using bacteria to separate the metals and extracting them from coal ash. There are efforts to find replacements for rare earths, but the replacements are not as effective, Massad said.
Mining won’t necessarily affect Fort Worth, Massad said, since MP Material’s mines are in Mountain Pass in California – the only rare earth mine in the country.
MP Materials in Fort Worth
MP Materials broke ground for its magnet factory at Alliance last April, and completed the building’s shell in September.
“Simultaneously we’re adding significant depth to our team, and rapidly growing our engineering organization, as well as our manufacturing capabilities,” Sloustcher said.
The company plans to start delivering alloy from the Fort Worth plant to General Motors late this year, and magnets in 2025, MP Materials founder James Litinsky said in an annual profit report meeting.
Litinsky also announced the company has a full research team at the Fort Worth factory and expects for staff to move in by late summer.
“Our goal is to make this site the center of the most cutting-edge magnetics efforts in the world,” Litinsky said.
MP Materials reported $289 million in net income during its 2022 results — an 114% increase.
Litinsky said creating the research center is another step forward to making more profit.
“We’re looking to create a magnetics champion,” Latinsky said. “And so everything that we do is geared towards that. And when we think about research … this is not like a think tank. This is research-oriented toward creating a franchise that’s going to be enormously valuable in the decades to come.”
Seth Bodine is a business and economic development reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @sbodine120.
Disclosure: Hillwood, which runs Alliance, is a financial sponsor of the Fort Worth Report. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.