A Hitachi motor announced today is designed to work without the expensive and limited minerals known as rare earth metals. The new 11 kilowatt motor is the product of four years of work, and is supposed to enter commercial production in 2014. Hitachi may be one of the first Japanese companies to develop motors that don't use powerful magnets or other components made with rare earths, but it's not going to be the only one: Toyota and others are apparently working towards the same goal.

Rare earth-free products are prompted both by the high price of the minerals and by political issues. Although China has only about a third of the world's rare earth resources, it accounts for 95 percent of production — North America, by contrast, has only a single mine. Because of this, as well as the fact that rare earths are used in many electronics, it's become a significant bargaining chip for China. Some countries are trying to break this monopoly by appealing to the WTO, but electronics makers in Japan, which briefly saw its rare earth distributions cut off entirely as part of a trade dispute with China, are clearly trying to reduce dependence on their overseas suppliers.