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Helping To Design More Sustainable Electric Vehicle Motors

Pitt Researchers Partner with Powdermet Inc. to Design More Sustainable Electric Machines for the Department of Energy

Originally published on PITT Swanson Engineering.


Summary

Most electric motors for electric vehicles rely on permanent magnets made with rare-earth metals. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering are working with Powdermet Inc., a nanomaterials and advanced materials research and development company in Euclid, Ohio, to develop a rare-earth mineral free electric engine. The project recently received $200,000 in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).


The global market for electric vehicles (EVs) is expected to grow by more than 25 percent by 2030, with some politicians and manufacturers alike calling for a phase-out of gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035. The White House is even expected to ask automakers to commit to at least 40 percent of its new vehicle sales being electric by the year 2030.

However, most electric motors for electric vehicles rely on permanent magnets made with rare-earth metals, which are — as the name implies — a limited resource*. In addition to their rarity, extracting and processing these materials has severe environmental consequences, leaving behind a significant amount of toxic waste. And since China accounts for the vast majority of rare-earth production, price volatility is another concern. To meet the needs of a growing market, designing electric motors without rare-earth metals is a crucial step, especially for sustainable supply chains. [*Editor’s note: rare-earth elements are actually not that rare — the name is misleading and doesn’t stem from them not being abundant. “Despite their name, rare-earth elements are relatively plentiful in Earth’s crust, with cerium being the 25th most abundant element at 68 parts per million, more abundant than copper.” However, they are often hard to extract very economically because they are not found in big lumps or ores. “Because of their geochemical properties, rare-earth elements are typically dispersed and not often found concentrated in rare-earth minerals. Consequently, economically exploitable ore deposits are sparse (i.e. ‘rare’).”]

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering are working with Powdermet Inc., a nanomaterials and advanced materials research and development company in Euclid, Ohio, to develop such an alternative. The Powdermet-led project hopes to create an electric machine that uses permanent magnets made of more abundant metals instead of rare-earth metals. The project recently received $200,000 in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) that will allow Powdermet to commercialize MnBi-based permanent magnetic materials developed at the U.S. Department of Energy Ames Laboratory Critical Materials Institute (CMI).

“The Green technologies of the future — electric vehicles, wind turbines, wave energy, drones, and more — rely on rare earth permanent magnets not currently available from domestic suppliers, resulting in significant supply chain risk. Powdermet is tremendously excited to bring our 25 years of nanostructured powder processing experience to rapidly scale production of rare earth free magnet technology developed at CMI,” said Andrew Sherman, founder and Chief Technology Officer of Powdermet and principal investigator. “Collaboration with the technical experts at AMPED, Pitt, and CMI will allow us to accelerate introduction of domestically produced rare earth free permanent magnets to North American supply chains.”

At Pitt, this work will be led by Paul Ohodnicki, associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science, and Brandon Grainger, Eaton Faculty Fellow and assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. Together, the Pitt team will use ANSYS MotorCAD to benchmark an electric motor design that takes advantage of the novel magnetic materials.

“Permanent magnets are used in electric motors because they can produce and maintain a strong magnetic field, even in the presence of an opposing magnetic field, as opposed to electromagnets, which require an electric current,” explained Paul Ohodnicki, associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at Pitt. “Using alternative materials such as MnBi-based permanent magnets, developed at the Ames Laboratory, to create a permanent magnet instead of rare-earth metals like neodymium and dysprosium would make electric vehicles more affordable, accessible, and sustainable, and would help the U.S. become a leader in the EV market.”

Powdermet is an industry participant of the Advanced Magnetics for Power & Energy Development (AMPED) Consortium, a research consortium led by director Ohodnicki and co-director Grainger at the University of Pittsburgh. AMPED includes several schools at Pitt, Carnegie Mellon University, North Carolina State University, national labs, and industry partners, bringing together an interdisciplinary skillset well-suited to the research and development of magnetic materials for power electronics and power conversion systems.

“AMPED’s mission is both to prepare the next generation of multidisciplinary researchers to innovate with soft magnetics materials in future power conversion systems and to help our partners in industry develop and test the innovations that the world needs now,” said Grainger, who is also associate director of the Energy GRID Institute. “This partnership with Powdermet is a great example of the kind of foundational research and development work we can do when we collaborate with our partners from various engineering disciplines, and we’re excited by the potential impact on the future of EVs.”

 
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