If General Motors is really serious about dialing down their electric vehicle ambitions, they sure have a funny way of showing it. In a move that set the Intertubes ablaze yesterday morning, GM launched a new strategic partnership with the US startup Niron Magnetics, aimed at bringing new, rare earth-free automotive technology to market.
Thanks To New Magnet, The Electric Vehicle Of The Future Will Be More Sustainable (And Less Expensive)
Much as we love electric cars here at CleanTechnica, when it comes to the sparkling green future they are not the whole enchilada. Carbon emissions and other environmental impacts ripple out through the automotive supply chain. Whether electric or not, every car needs car parts.
Auto industry stakeholders have been slowly chipping away at the sustainable supply chain problem. So far much of the effort has been focused on bio-based or recycled substitutes for minor parts such as harness clips and storage bins, along with some interesting developments in the search for more sustainable tire materials. The field of 3-D printing is also being called into play as a waste reducer.
The permanent magnets used in electric vehicle motors have been another focus of attention. As noted by GM, conventional EV magnets rely on expensive rare earth materials like terbium, dysprosium, praseodymium, and neodymium. In addition, US auto makers are encumbered by a supply chain that relies mainly on overseas rare earth processors.
That’s where Niron comes in. The company launched in 2014 as a spin-out from the University of Minnesota. The technology was shepherded by Jian-Ping Wang, who holds the title of Distinguished McKnight University Professor and occupies the Robert F. Hartmann Chair in the school’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Wang co-founded Niron and currently serves as its Chief Science Officer.
Niron’s signature product is a new, rare earth-free iron nitride magnet, marketed under the proprietary name, Clean Earth Magnet™.
“We believe Niron’s unique 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,” enthused Anirvan Coomer, president of GM Ventures, in a press statement.
Group Hug For US Taxpayers
The press statement also affirmed that GM Ventures has joined the ranks of Niron’s investors. GM expects its contribution to help polish up the technology into full commercialization.
US taxpayers have also played a role. Wang’s work on sustainably sourced magnets at the University of Minnesota caught the eye of the Energy Department back in 2012, when the agency’s high risk, high reward ARPA-E funding office tapped the school for $4.2 million in early stage funding.
The grant came under ARPA-E’s REACT program for developing alternatives to rare earths in electric vehicle magnets and other key technologies.
“Because these minerals are expensive and in limited supply, alternative technologies must be developed to replace rare-earth-based magnets in motors and generators,” ARPA-E explained. “Alternatives to rare earths will contribute to the cost-effectiveness of EVs and wind generators, facilitating their widespread use and drastically reducing the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.”
ARPA-E set a high bar for the new iron nitride magnet. “This project will provide the basis for an entirely new class of rare-earth-free magnets capable of generating power without costly and scarce rare earth materials,” ARPA-E stated.
“The ultimate goal of this project is to demonstrate a prototype with magnetic properties exceeding state-of-the-art commercial magnets,” they added.
More Sustainable Electric Vehicles For The US
The initial funding for the research covered the period from 2012 to 2015. Apparently ARPA-E liked what they saw. In 2022 the office announced that it graduated Niron from the early stage REACT pipeline to commercial-ready status under its SCALEUP program, with $17.5 million in new funding.
If all goes according to plan, the result will be a high performance, lower cost magnet that can be manufactured in the US with minimal, if any, supply chain obstacles. ARPA-E also notes that “a significantly reduced environmental footprint” is on the menu.
The SCALEUP funding should help ensure that all does go according to plan. ARPA-E created the program specifically to help close the “scaling gap” that lies between disruptive new technologies and success in the marketplace. “The goal of the program is to translate the performance achieved at the lab-and bench-scale to commercially viable versions of the technology,” ARPA-E explains.
What’s All This About Cutting Back On Electric Vehicle Production?
The Niron announcement should help calm nerves among electric vehicle fans, who got some disappointing news last month when reports surfaced that GM was dialing down its plans for producing 400,000 EVs in North America.
That appears to be a short term hitch. GM Ventures has been scouting for partners to help smooth the path to a zero emission future, including the solid state EV battery firm SES and the Korean firm POSCO, with which GM has formed an EV battery manufacturing relationship. The two companies have embarked on a $1 billion+ joint venture to ramp up the production of cathode active materials for EV batteries in North America.
The venture also includes integrating precursor materials (pCAM) into the production sequence.
“pCAM is a specifically engineered combination of processed raw materials necessary to produce CAM, a key battery material representing about 40% of the cost of a battery cell,” the companies explained in a press release last June. “Currently, CAM and pCAM processing is highly concentrated in Asia.”
The press release also included this statement: “GM is executing plans to install 1 million units of annual EV capacity in North America in 2025, supported by four U.S. battery cell joint venture plants.”
That remains to be seen, at least over the short term. Over the long run, though, GM still seems committed to the soup-to-nuts sustainability plan it articulated back in January of 2021.
Fans of the company’s Chevy Bolt sedan also got a pleasant surprise last July, when GM announced plans to bring the popular, relatively affordable EV back into production. Details were thin at the time and they haven’t gotten any thicker, but they did get juicier.
Earlier this week, Reuters reported that the company’s tentative agreement with the United Auto Workers union included bringing the Bolt back to life.
“General Motors … is expected build a more affordable version of the Chevrolet Bolt in Kansas and a new series of premium electric vehicles for Cadillac and Chevrolet in Michigan as part of its planned $13.3 billion in investments in U.S. facilities,” Reuters reporter Paul Lienert noted.
That’s not quite a done deal yet, so stay tuned for an official announcement from GM.
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Image: New rare-earth free magnets for electric vehicle motors, courtesy of GM.
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