As a 17-year-old, he manufactures an engine for an electric car without rare earths

What did you do when you were 17? In an age when others are still swimming in carelessness, Robert Sansone may have just revolutionized the electric car industry, with as a result the end of a debate about the pollution caused by so-called non-thermal models.

What is a rare earth species? Cerium, lanthanum, neodymium… these words probably mean nothing to you, but these metals are part of the so-called “17 rare earth” family, ie. strategic raw materials today, paradoxically not because of their rarity (we found on 5 continents), but because of the strong demand for these components, which are now essential for the production of smartphones, trains and electric cars in particular. As such, 80% of current models contain these famous rare earths, which are mainly exploited in China due to dumping created 30 years ago. And so it is that the concept of rare earths, in the midst of the ecological and energy crisis, has suddenly become a national problem: Faced with the increase in global demand, the shortage is organized and pressures producers and states to reconsider their use of these rare earths, which also requires the extraction of tons of so-called dirty ores.

An essential component in electric motors. At present, these rare earths are mainly found in the rotor, in the electric motor of cars, in what are called super magnets. And this problem of dual dependence (on metals as well as on a producing country, China) involuntarily pushed the young engineer Robert Sansone to wonder about the possible alternatives. At 17, the American is not at his first attempt: we owe him at least 60 engineering projects, including high-speed racing boots or a kart project that can run more than 100 km/h. And that’s not all: after coming across a video that tackles the pollution caused by electric cars (at the time of their design), Robert took it into his head to design an electric motor capable of doing without rare earths for production of magnets. And guess what? It would have worked.

Photo credit: Robert Sansone

Get inspired by fans. Sansone’s observation, after several prototypes, is that it is possible to create so-called “synchronous reluctance” electric motors, like those used for fans. Main advantage: the latter requires copper, a so-called strategic metal, but much cheaper than the rare earths, and available in sufficient quantities to provide the beginning of a solution for the automotive industry. His solution? Using “copper wires, a steel rotor and a plastic housing with a 3D printer” results in 39% more electrical rotation than with a traditional synchronous reluctance motor. So much for the technical aspect. Let’s move on to the prospects.

The right price. While the industry is currently in turmoil due to a lack of raw materials and the semiconductor crisis continues to hamper the production of new vehicles, in the long term Robert Sansone’s invention could represent a major innovation step to enable electric cars to break free from rare soil types. If innovation in itself will not solve the entire ecological problem associated with non-thermal models that are still too often produced on the other side of the world (thereby increasing their carbon footprint), it nevertheless allows us to get a glimmer of hope in vehicle design.

That’s probably why Robert Sansone won first prize this year at the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), the world’s largest international STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) competition for high school students. With the $75,000 obtained as a bonus, the young adult hopes to complete the testing phase of his engine and thus set out to conquer the automotive sector with a new patent in his pocket. How can you not wish him well?

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