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Back to the Future

As posted previously, one of the big challenges the cleantech community faces is the reliance of many pivotal technologies on rare earth minerals that are mainly located in China and increasingly subject to supply curtailment.  Neodymium is of particular concern for so-called permanent-magnet motors and generators.

In response, a number of companies are seeking alternatives to neodymium-based permanent magnets.  According to this recent article in The Economist, Toyota (NYSE: TM) is believed to have exhumed an AC induction motor designed initially the brilliant/mad (take your pick) scientist Nikolai Tesla in 1888.

This is yet another example of cleantech innovations that resuscitate long-lost ideas discarded way-back-when for a certain reason and re-examining them in light of improvements and advancements that had been made in the intervening period that can eliminate the challenges heretofore thwarting their successful development.

In this particular case, the advent of semiconductors and microcomputer-based controls enables modulation of the induction motor’s speed at thousands of times per second — something that Tesla could only have dreamed about.

I spoke in June with Joe Kovach, the head of the newly-formed Corporate Technology Venture group at Parker Hannifin (NYSE: PH), who said that one of his priorities was to mine some of the company’s old overlooked intellectual property that had been essentially discarded due to then-infeasibility and view those prior discoveries through the lens of the spectrum of technologies that are now available today.

I suspect that lots of progress can be made in the cleantech space if more of us were to similarly go back to the future.