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GM partners with Niron to develop rare-earth-free EV motors

Permanent magnets serve a growing but unseen function in modern technology. Permanent-magnet motors transfer energy to motion and power everyday gadgets such as computers, appliances, and vehicles.

Magnets consisting of rare-earth elements (such as NdFeB magnets) are the most commonly employed for high-performance applications. However, the mining, extraction, and manufacturing processes are labor-demanding, costly, and environmentally harmful. Prices for these resources have historically been volatile due to supply chain and geopolitical challenges, and they have risen in recent years.

Aiming to find a solution to this rising issue, automaker General Motors (GM) has now teamed up with US startup Niron Magnetics to further the development of the latter’s rare-earth-free permanent magnets. The partnership aims to address the most pressing issues associated with such permanent magnet motos, like rising prices, supply chain instability, environmental impact, and long-term availability concerns.

Superior magnets

Permanent magnets in EV motor rotors are generally constructed of rare-earth minerals like terbium, dysprosium, praseodymium, and neodymium, which are costly and are now manufactured nearly completely overseas, primarily in China.

As the use of electric vehicles (EVs) grows, so do the obstacles. Rising magnet demand for EVs, wind turbines, and other applications is expected to cause shortages over the next five years, resulting in severe competition and even higher pricing.

Offering an alternative, Niron’s unique Clean Earth Magnet technology is based on iron nitride, a plentiful and inexpensive material with great economic promise in future EVs. The startup has developed the “world’s first and only permanent magnet with automotive-grade power that is entirely free from critical materials, including rare or heavy rare earth minerals,” said a statement from GM.

Niron claims that its rare-earth free magnets have greater magnetism by nature and can be produced at a reduced cost. The firm aims to generate high-powered magnets utilizing readily accessible iron and nitrogen raw ingredients that can be supplied globally and sustainably using a proprietary, scalable technology. Its methods involved the use of “nanomaterials with well-understood, mature metallurgical methods to deliver high-performance magnets at half the cost,” said Niron’s website.

Strategic partnership

The partnership with GM will mark a major milestone in Niron’s journey, which started in 2014. The firm was given a $17.5 million grant from the US Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program in November 2022. The funds are being utilized to advance commercial collaborations and prototype manufacturing programs.

Now, an additional $33 million in funding, with new investments from leading automotive manufacturers GM Ventures and Stellantis Ventures, as well as previous local investors, will help the firm to make its technology commercially viable and accessible.

GM hopes this initiative will help further the mission of an all-electric future, emphasizing the creation of an extensive and sustainable electric vehicle (EV) lineup. Such magnets in EV motors, a crucial component of its Ultium Platform, will help it offer customers a cost-effective and environmentally friendly alternative to traditional materials.

The carmaker hopes this 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, in a statement.

Interestingly, the investment by GM Ventures in Niron’s Magnetics completes its lengthy history of specialized magnet invention. Around 40 years ago, GM’s R&D team was credited with the discovery and marketing of the world’s first high-powered, rare-earth permanent magnet material. “Niron’s Clean Earth Magnet could help GM make more affordable EVs for its customers out of more abundant materials,” said Coomer.

The partnership will help Niron to expand its pilot production capacity through team and facility extensions, allowing it to expand client prototype programs and enable small-scale product runs for important entry markets, according to the firm. Niron’s technology can be utilized in consumer electronics and audio technologies, industrial motors, pumps, compressors, wind turbines, and other applications in addition to automobiles.

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