Toyota on Tuesday said it is developing a new type of electric motor that would reduce its need for magnets; a move analysts say would help it cut its dependence on rare earth metals and lower costs.
The world's largest seller of hybrid automobiles is reportedly working on a motor based on common and inexpensive induction motors found in appliances such as kitchen mixers that use electromagnets instead of permanent ones.
Toyota did not confirm what kind of engine it is working on, but industry observers say by using less magnets it would cut its demand for rare earths such as neodymium, mostly mined in China and used in hybrid and electric car motors.
Rare earths are key components in products ranging from flat-screen television panels to hybrid cars and China's curbs on overseas shipments have prompted complaints from foreign high-tech producers.
"The type of motor Toyota is developing would reduce our need for magnets," said Toyota spokesman Paul Nolasco.
"Toyota is known for always trying to get more out of less, and the development of a new motor, or just about any environmental technology, is an example of such."
The automaker plans to introduce a fully-electric vehicle in 2012 and a hydrogen fuel cell powered one by 2015. The development of magnetless motors was "simply part of the evolution of electric motors," said Nolasco.
At last week's Detroit auto show Toyota unveiled new siblings for its popular Prius hybrid, introducing a brand new midsized wagon, a plug-in, and a compact Prius.
The race to produce better hybrid and electric cars has spurred demand for rare earth elements such as neodymium and lithium used in batteries.
China, which produces more than 95 percent of the world's rare earths, has tightened control over the elements by cutting quotas for overseas shipments and hiking export taxes.
The moves have raised concern overseas that China was abusing its market dominance, but Beijing has insisted the issue is an environmental one.
Japanese industry sources said China temporarily cut off exports last year during a territorial row between Asia's two largest economies.
Japan is dependent on China for more than 90 percent of its rare earths supply, making its high-tech industry vulnerable to Beijing's efforts to cut export quotas.
The United States last month called for Beijing not to use its control over the metals as a "weapon" to serve political interests.
In December Toyota Tsusho, a trading house procuring for the world's top automaker, announced plans to build a plant for processing rare earth minerals in India from 2012.
The deal followed a strategic alliance formed between Japanese trading house Sojitz and Australian mining firm Lynas, aiming at a 10-year deal that would supply Japan more than 9,000 tons of rare earths per year.
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