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Contract Awarded for Magnets Made Without Rare Earth Metals

Rare earths (USGS)

(U.S. Geological Service)

Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond has received a $2.9 million contract from Department of Energy to develop a new class of permanent magnets for energy-efficient electric car motors and generators. The project is funded through the department’s Rare Earth Alternatives in Critical Technologies program (REACT) under the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.

The REACT program aims to find alternatives to rare earths, naturally-occurring minerals with magnetic properties used in many electronics and energy technologies. Rising rare earth prices have already escalated costs for some energy technologies and threatened shortages may jeopardize the availability and widespread adoption of energy solutions by U.S. manufacturers.

The three-year contract with VCU aims to use a magnetic carbide-based composite, which resembles a fine black powder, to develop a magnet in a prototype electric motor. Chemistry professor Everett Carpenter and colleagues at VCU have already developed transition metal carbide nanoscale magnets, which require no rare earth elements. (1 nanometer = 1 billionth of a meter)

According to Carpenter, producing the new magnetic material uses a simplified synthesis technique, which can significantly reduce the cost of production. The cost of making a rare earth magnet such as Samarium cobalt, says Carpenter, is about $70 per pound, but the proposed chemical process to create this new magnet could lower production costs to about $1.50 per pound.

“Our process is a chemical process that’s nanobased,” notes Carpenter. “The program, if successful, would result in the first commercially viable rare-earth free magnet in nearly 50 years.”

The VCU team, consisting of Carpenter and physics professor Shiv Khanna, is collaborating with research teams from Northeastern University, the University of California-San Diego, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Moog Components Inc., Arnold Magnetics Technologies, and Bayer Technology Services.

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