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National Lab Developing Alternatives to Rare Earth Materials

Rare earths (USGS)

(U.S. Geological Service)

The Ames Laboratory in Iowa is developing alternatives to rare earth materials in two separate projects funded by the U.S. Department of Energy — one material for use in permanent magnets for electric vehicles, and the other material a manganese-based alternative to rare earths. The Ames Laboratory is a national lab under Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

Rare earths are a set of 17 elements that offer unique properties when combined with other elements.  Rare earths are found in important components of nearly every modern-day electronic device, from televisions to cell phones and computers, to automobiles, as well as magnets used in wind turbines. Some foreign producers of rare earths are restricting access to their supplies for strategic and economic leverage.

The first project will conduct research to develop a new class of high-strength permanent magnets with the element cerium, a rare-earth element four times more abundant than neodymium, the critical element used in today’s permanent magnets. Partners in the three-year $2.2 million project are General Motors, NovaTorque, and Molycorp Minerals.

The research will study combinations of other metallic elements with cerium to create a new magnet with high-temperature stability for electric vehicle motors. General Motors and NovaTorque will evaluate the material in traction motors for vehicles while Molycorp will provide the supply chain and development path for commercialization of these materials. Molycorp Minerals is the only U.S. producer of rare-earth materials.

In the second project, researchers from Ames Laboratory and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory will investigate ways to reduce dependence on rare earths in wind turbines and electric vehicles by developing a new material based on manganese as an alternative to rare-earth permanent magnets. These manganese composite magnets could as much as double the power of current rare earth-based magnets, and with inexpensive and abundant raw materials.

This research team — including participants from Electron Energy Corp, United Technologies Research Center, University of Maryland and University of Texas at Arlington — will speed up the typical process of developing new alloys by using computers to guide materials selection. The computer-based methods are expected to evaluate a much larger number of potential compositions than can usually be done in a short period of time.

If this research effort is successful, the manganese composite magnets could reduce U.S. dependence on expensive rare-earth material imports and reduce the cost and improve the efficiency of green-energy applications, such as wind turbines and electric vehicles.

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