U researchers make sustainable magnet

The project aims to produce magnets out of iron and nitrogen — avoiding the use of environmentally hazardous elements.

Brandon Roiger

Cheaper and greener magnets could soon be on the market.

A research team at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment is creating a new sustainable magnet to market to customers in the next couple of years. The project, which recently received a $10,000 prize, aims to produce magnets out of iron and nitrogen, avoiding the use of environmentally hazardous rare earth elements.

“Right now, we need sustainable and environment-friendly magnets,” said Md Mehedi, a doctoral student in the College of Science and Engineering and member of the research team. “The magnets we have right now are made from rare earth metals. The extraction process is very intensive, and they are economically expensive.”

The project won the Dow Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge Award competition in St. Paul last month. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency has also granted the group $4 million between 2012 and 2015.

Niron Magnetics Inc., a University startup company, will manufacture the sustainable magnet, and Niron CEO Frank Thibodeau said samples of the magnets will be available in the next year. The product will then be improved based on feedback and should be ready to hit the market with full force in another two years.

“I get emails and calls regularly from magnet consumers who are — as word gets out about the new material and development — very eager to hear what its properties are and how it compares to what’s out there in the market,” Thibodeau said. “I’m getting a strong sense that there is a lot of demand.”

Mehedi estimated that the magnets currently on the market are a $20 billion industry.

The magnets would most commonly be used in wind turbine generators, motors, hard drives, MRI machines and in the electric vehicle market, Mehedi said.

Automobiles and light trucks can use up to 150 magnets for systems like the speedometer, gas gauge and air bag sensors to function properly, according to the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Amy Short, a 3M employee who judged the Dow competition, said the new magnets would be useful for companies who focus on sustainability.

“After learning more about the project and seeing the collaboration from the team involved with the researcher, it was exciting to see the direction of the magnet,” she said.

The magnets may also be less expensive to those currently on the market.

The availability of iron and nitrogen elements is abundant, especially in comparison to costly rare earth metals being extracted from the Earth, Thibodeau said, so he doesn’t expect them to be more costly.

“Making these magnets out of iron and nitrogen would be quite a bit different than the magnets currently using rare earth metals,” said Steve Guillaudeu, an associate research scientist at Dow Chemical Company who also judged the competition.