Securing the Supply of Electrical Steel in EV Motors
The unprecedented growth in the electric vehicle market has taxed supply chains in surprising ways, including shortages of crucial materials. U.S. Steel is launching a new electrical steel production line to help meet the growing demand.
The electric vehicle (EV) market boom is an exciting growth opportunity critical in the pivot to renewable energy. This rapid growth also creates some challenges. EV charging infrastructure still needs to be robust, the lithium-ion battery recycling process needs improvement, and an electrical steel shortage significantly impacts the supply chain for EV motors.
Steel worker cutting a coil in a steel mill. Image used courtesy of Stanford
Electrical steel is critical not only for the EV market but also for the resilience of the utility grid and, ultimately, national security, so increasing the electrical steel supply is paramount. To meet demand, U.S. Steel is opening an electrical steel production line in Arkansas that promises to create more electrical steel than any other domestic provider, thus helping shore up dangerous supply gaps.
Electrical Steel and Electric Motor Performance
Electrical steel is a necessity for the electric motors used to power EVs. There is simply no substitute for this material because the electromagnetic field that helps turn the rotor would not be produced without it.
Electrical steel itself is a soft magnetic material, and it is the composition of this material that strengthens the electromagnetic field. Electrical steel, an iron-silicon alloy, is better than other steel alloys because of its magnetic properties.
Electrical Steel Production Challenges
In the context of worldwide steel production, electrical steel is a small portion of total steel created. Approximately 1% of the steel produced is electrical steel.
Producing electrical steel is a complex proposition. It is not a matter of simply purchasing equipment and flipping a switch. Many companies have no interest in manufacturing electric steel because of the intricacies of the process and the small margin of error.
The steel has to undergo a long process of melting, casting, and rolling, and the sheets produced are often less than a quarter of a millimeter thick. If there are any errors in the process, whole batches must be destroyed. The production volume remains low because it is easier for companies to manufacture other steel forms with less risk and cost.
Non-grain-oriented steel production. Image used courtesy of U.S. Steel
The problem becomes even more pronounced when considering the difference between grain-oriented and non-oriented electrical steel. The latter is needed specifically for applications with moving parts, such as motors and other rotating machinery that need multidirectional magnetization. So, EV manufacturers rely on a subset of electrical steel, which already makes up a minuscule proportion of total steel production.
Only 14 companies can produce non-grain-oriented electrical steel that meets regulation requirements, and the fiscal costs of entering this manufacturing market are considered prohibitive for many companies that lack the personnel, equipment, and expertise to produce electrical steel.
Likely electrical steel production shortages projected into 2030. Image used courtesy of S&P Global
Because of all these converging factors that limit production, experts project that the electrical steel shortage will only become more significant in the coming years.
Building New Electrical Steel Production Lines
The only answer to the electrical steel shortage is the construction of new manufacturing lines. After more than $450 million of investment funds and a year of preparation, U.S. Steel is opening its electrical steel manufacturing line at its Big River Steel facility in Osceola, Arkansas.
The line can produce 200,000 tons of non-grain-oriented electrical steel annually. It will provide a critical supply to help stave off shortages likely to grow as the EV market expands.
In addition to simply meeting demand, this new line will also make critical contributions to sustainability, as it will use 90% scrap steel as raw material and reduce emissions by 70%-80% compared to conventional steel-making techniques.
The impact of the Big River Steel production line on domestic shortages will be significant. Still, long-term struggles in this supply chain will likely persist as electric vehicle adoption continues worldwide.