Late last week the US Department of Energy [DoE] awarded $9.6 million in grants for six Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy [ARPA-E] projects as a means to “accelerate innovation in clean energy technologies, increase America’s competitiveness and create jobs”.
Notable among the grants was a $2.25 million grant to GE Global Research, of Niskayuna, NY, for a project titled ‘Transformational Nanostructured Permanent Magnets”.
According to the write up from the DoE, GE will
“develop next-generation permanent magnets that include lower content of critical rare-earth materials. GE will develop bulk nanostructured magnetic materials, resulting in a dramatic increase in performance over state-of-the-art magnets. The impact of these new magnets will be to increase the efficiency and power density of electric machines while reducing dependence on globally critical rare-earth minerals.”
GE claims that the production of such magnets will lead to growth in the hybrid vehicle and wind turbine generator markets. It is no secret that GE is involved in the latter industry, having recently acquired a business unit that produces permanent-magnet-based, direct-drive wind turbines.
According to GE’s project proposal, their project will focus on a goal of obtaining new magnet materials with a maximum energy product of at least 80 MGOe and with an 80% reduction in rare earth content. To achieve this aim, the research will focus on the development of nanostructured magnet materials, in order to “demonstrate for the first time a bulk exchange-spring nanocomposite permanent magnet”.
The maximum energy product of a magnetic material is a figure of merit used to compare the performance of one magnetic material to another. Currently, the highest such value for a commercially available permanent magnet hovers at around 55-57 MGOe, for magnets based on alloys of Nd-Fe-B. The maximum theoretical energy product for Nd-Fe-B magnet materials is 64 MGOe and so the GE research project, if successful, would be a real breakthrough. So-called exchange-spring magnets rely on finely tuned microstructures that contain special nano-sized grain mixtures of materials such as Nd-Fe-B and Fe.
What makes this award pretty interesting is that it is the first time in quite a while that GE has been publicly associated with research into permanent magnet materials. There is no mention in the news release from the DoE of any collaborating entities on the project, which raises the question of just how GE will staff and execute the project, in order to move the state of the art along, without formally collaborating with leading academic and research groups in the field.
This announcement follows on from the award earlier this year by ARPA-E, of $4.5 million to a consortium led by the University of Delaware, for a project titled, “High Energy Permanent Magnets for Hybrid Vehicles and Alternative Energy“. In addition to the similar goal of successfully producing nano-composite-based permanent magnets, the Delaware project will also look at completely new magnetic material compositions.
Unlike the apparent structure of the GE project, Delaware will be collaborating with a number of other groups including those at the University of Nebraska, Ames Lab / Iowa State University, Northeastern University, Virginia Commonwealth University and Electron Energy Corporation.