Image © Andrzej
Makers of the popular Prius hybrid car, Toyota Motor Corp., is developing a new kind of electric motor in an effort to reduce its dependence on rare earth metals from China.
China produces 97 per cent of the global output of rare earth metals which are needed for a wide range of advanced technology products, including highly praised hybrid gasoline-electric 'eco-cars'.
The move comes after Beijing blocked exports of the exotic metals to Japan late last year following a diplomatic row over disputed islands. While China resumed exporting in November, the country has gradually reduced its output of the metals and as such prices have soared.
Analysts have said that while production of hybrid vehicles remains relatively low, there is little immediate risk from a shortage of rare earth metals. However, as such types of vehicle become more popular, it is becoming increasingly necessary for manufacturers to look for alternatives.
A spokesperson for Toyota said: "Toyota is always looking for a reduction in resources and in terms of costs."
They also said that given trade uncertainties with China, Japan has actively pursued deals around Asia to develop alternative sources for the materials needed for such high-tech products.
The car manufacturer has not released any specific details for the new motor, but said last year that it will begin selling a completely electric vehicle throughout the US, Japan and Europe in 2012. There are also plans to produce an electric sport-utility vehicle in conjunction with US luxury electric car maker Tesla.
Rare earth metals can also be found in the US, Canada and Australia, but mining in these areas stopped in the 1990s as China – which has about 30 per cent of global rare earth deposits – began offering readily available, lower cost supplies.
Earlier this month, a state newspaper in China said the country was planning to toughen its environmental standards and reported that China's 2010 export quota of 24,280 tonnes was a 30 per cent reduction on the previous year's.