Argonne receives $3 million to create cheaper magnets

By Jared SagoffSeptember 30, 2011

Washington, D.C. —The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) yesterday announced a $3 million grant to Argonne National Laboratory to further research in developing better, cheaper and lighter magnets.

As one of 60 grants funded by a $156 million investment from DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) initiative, a team of Argonne materials scientists, nanotechnologists and engineers will pursue the development of a particular type of "exchange-spring" magnet that could offer industry a superior alternative to increasingly expensive magnets based on rare earth metals.

"The Department of Energy created the ARPA-E initiative to give a jump-start to truly transformative research, to give scientists and engineers a chance to develop game-changing new technologies that will promote American prosperity and energy independence," said Eric D. Isaacs, director of Argonne. "Through Argonne's expertise in nanotechnology, we hope to speed development of affordable new magnets that can be manufactured from domestic materials — and that can ultimately play a key role in the commercialization of new, green energy technologies."

Permanent magnets are frequently used in windmill generators and electric motors. The recent development of the global energy economy has placed a premium on the rare earth elements on which these magnets are based. Using nanotechnology, Argonne researchers hope to create magnets that displace the need for these materials.

Exchange-spring magnets combine two distinct kinds of magnetic materials — so-called "hard" and "soft" magnets. By magnetically coupling the hard and soft magnetic materials, their composite magnetic strength increases and they can operate at higher temperatures. By nanostructuring a magnet with a "hard" outer shell and a "soft" inner core, researchers hope to benefit from both types of materials, said Argonne principal process engineer John Hryn.

Building a nanostructured magnet large enough for an industrial application will be no small feat, said Argonne nanotechnologist Richard Brotzman. The project will rely on assembling the magnetic particles at the nanoscale before joining them using a process known as slip casting, a technique traditionally associated with the production of ceramics. "Slip casting allows us to orient these nanoparticles to maximize their magnetic properties," he said.

Argonne partnered with the Electron Energy Corporation of Pennsylvania on the proposal.

ARPA-E's mission is to develop nimble, creative and inventive approaches to transform the global energy landscape while advancing America's technology leadership.

ARPA-E was originally established under the America Competes Act of 2007. In April 2009, President Obama announced $400 million in initial funding for ARPA-E through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This round of investment represents the fourth round of funding under the ARPA-E program.