Future GM EV motors could swap rare earth with "Clean Earth" magnets
While electric vehicles certainly offer a host of eco-friendly advantages, they're not without some asterisks, one being the rare earth materials (and harmful mining thereof) used to make the magnets intrinsic to most automotive-grade motors. New magnet-free motor designs are being pursued as one alternative, but General Motors is looking to Minneapolis startup Niron Magnetics to help it chart a different course. Niron's "Clean Earth" magnets are claimed to be the only rare-earth-free permanent magnets capable of automotive-grade power, relying on more readily available and sustainable iron nitride.
Niron is having itself a month. Two weeks ago, it landed a spot on TIME Magazine's list of "Best Inventions of 2023," and now it's moving forward with a strategic partnership with one of the world's largest automakers. GM announced the partnership on Wednesday, stressing that Niron's magnet technology could be a key part of its future EV portfolio.
GM isn't merely an automaker desiring a better breed of motor magnet tech for its growing global electric vehicle lineup; it's recognized as one of two original inventors of the neodymium permanent magnet that underpins many automotive motors today. The other inventor, Japan company Sumitomo, developed the same type of magnet with a different process, completely independently of GM at the same time in the early 1980s.
Unfortunately, neodymium and other rare earth minerals used in the motor magnets, including terbium, dysprosium and praseodymium, have some serious downsides. They're primarily sourced from China, leaving other countries subject to shaky foreign supply chains and pricing fluctuations, and their mining and processing leaves behind a heavy environmental footprint.
Originally developed at the University of Minnesota, Niron's iron nitride magnet technology doesn't require rare earth materials and is being positioned as a cleaner, more affordable alternative. The raw iron and nitrogen are common elements that can be sourced locally, in North America and other areas of the world, without the environmental damage or supply chain issues that plague rare earths.
Niron Magnetics was founded in 2014 to commercialize iron nitride magnetic technology. It claims its Clean Earth Magnet to be the first non-rare-earth magnet capable of automotive-grade power. It is working to perfect the manufacturing processes needed to scale up production.
Niron further claims that iron nitride has a stronger magnetic field than rare earth magnetic material, paving the way toward motors that are lighter, smaller and more efficient than current neodymium magnet motors. If true, this would separate iron nitride magnets from non-rare-earth ferrite magnets that have weaker magnetic fields and require larger, heavier motor designs.
A year ago, in November 2022, Niron was awarded a US$17.5-million grant from the US Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program. It earmarked the money for advancing commercial partnerships and pilot production programs.
GM plans to co-develop Niron's magnets and is investing in the company via its GM Ventures startup investment arm.
“We believe Niron’s unique technology can play a key role in reducing rare earth minerals from EV motors and help us further scale our North American-based supply chain for EVs," said Anirvan Coomer, president of GM Ventures. "Our path to an all-electric future will be enabled not only by our own research and development efforts, but also by investing in next-generation technology from startups and established companies outside our four walls."
GM's investment is part of $33 million of new funding Niron announced Wednesday from several entities, including Stellantis Ventures, the University of Minnesota and the Shakopee Mdewakanton Community. It says it will use the money toward increasing pilot production capacities, increasing customer prototyping programs and supporting small-scale product runs for key entry markets.
Besides the new monies from GM and Stellantis, Niron has previously received funding from Volvo Cars Tech Fund, giving it support from three global automakers. Niron's motors also have potential consumer and industrial applications beyond the automotive segment, in audio speakers, power tools, wind turbines, medical devices, elevators, HVAC systems and more.
Source: General Motors