An electric motor that’s ditched the rare earth materials

Political battles over rare earth materials — which are crucial for many energy components, like lighting, batteries and motors — have spawned efforts to create technologies free of these materials. A startup called HEVT (or Hybrid Electric Vehicle Technologies), which recently won the national Cleantech competition, has developed a rare earth-free electrical motor and is looking to deliver its technology to market first in electric bicycles.

The Chicago-based company has engineered a high-performance “switched reluctance motor” and says it has solved the noise and vibration problem that has crippled efforts in the past to commercialize it, according to Heidi Lubin, CEO of HEVT. The motor presents an alternative to conventional induction and magnet motors, which require rare earth elements that can be hard to secure.

The term “rare earth” is something of a misnomer because of many rare earth elements are actually abundant in the Earth’s crust. Seventeen elements are classified as rare earths, the USGS says. But these materials are less likely to become concentrated deposits like other common metals and are generally difficult to mine at a commercial scale, so they have largely come from only a handful of sources.

China provides an abundant and cheap supply of these rare earth materials partly because its production is a by-product of iron mining. In fact, China is the world’s largest producer of rare earth elements, and its past effort to impose restrictions on exports stirred an outcry from countries such as the U.S. and Japan. China eased the export restriction this past summer, but that move didn’t damper concerns about the country’s tight grip on the materials, which also are used for making wind turbines, LED lighting and other green tech products.

The U.S. Department of Energy has funded projects to develop materials and components that won’t need rare earth elements. HEVT is part of a team, led by the University of Texas at Dallas, to design a switch reluctance motor with nearly  $3 million from the DOE’s ARPA-E program. Rare earth mining and processing also can be environmentally unfriendly.

HEVT was founded in 2005 within the Illinois Institute of Technology to target electric hybrids and plug-in electric cars and trucks. But that market is hard to crack. The pace of electric car adoption hasn’t taken off as quickly as some proponents would’ve liked to see, and some battery makers in particular have had trouble meeting their sales projections. So HEVT wants to tackle the more established electric bicycle market first.

“One of the reasons we like the electric bike market is because it’s a high-volume, high-churn market, so that we can reach scale quickly,” Lubin said.

Lubin says the startup has signed purchase orders and letters of intent from customers for up to 7,000 units of its electric motors, though she declined to disclose the customers’ names. HEVT, which will hire manufacturers to make its motors, is counting on these early customers to help it scale up production. Production will be critical for cutting costs and compete effectively with makers of magnet motors. Once the company hits the 10,000-unit goal, said Lubin, then it will be able to reduce its production costs significantly.

To crank up production, the company will need money. HEVT wants to raise a $5 million series A and hopes its newly minted title as the winner of the Cleantech Open will help its fundraising effort. The startup won $250,000 in the competition.

Switched reluctance motor is made up of a rotating disc inside a stationary disc. Each disc has poles that come in contact with each other in a way that allows the stationary disc, which is partly outfitted with copper wire to create a magnetic field, to move the rotating disc and create mechanical energy.

The motor promises a high torque and a wider range of speed over conventional motors. But it also has been bedeviled by problems with noise and vibration, which led to a jerky motion, in the past. HEVT has since modified the physical design of the motor and developed software to help fix the problem.

Aside from the electric bike market, HEVT also wants to see its motors in appliances and industrial equipment, from heating and cooling systems to pumps for oil and gas operations.