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The search for cleaner magnets for climate tech

Jan 29, 2024
Illustration of a magnet attracting hundred dollar bills

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Investors and governments are backing cleaner permanent magnets, the behind-the-scenes workhorses of the energy transition.

Why it matters: Magnets, made of rare earth metals, power everything from electric vehicle drive trains to wind turbine generators. China dominates the rare earth supply chain.

Driving the news: Minneapolis-based Niron Magnetics, which makes rare-earth-free permanent magnets, has been raising funds from automakers and others to "aggressively scale the technology," the company's CEO tells Axios.

Of note: The company said in November it had raised $33 million, with investors that included GM Ventures and Stellantis Ventures.

  • "We're excited about having investors that are customers," said Niron CEO Jonathan Rowntree.
  • Earlier this month, an SEC filing disclosed that Niron had raised funding of $86.38 million. The company declined to provide any additional details about the funding.
  • At the Consumer Electronics Show three weeks ago, the startup showed off a speaker made of its rare-earth-free magnets at the booth of the ARPA-E program, the Department of Energy's moonshot program, which supported Niron early on with grants.
A speaker made of rare-earth-free magnets at the Consumer Electronics Show
Niron Magnetics' speaker made of rare-earth-free magnets on display at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month. Photo courtesy of Niron Magnetics

How it works: Niron, spun off from the University of Minnesota, has leveraged nanomaterial tech to make its permanent magnets out of iron nitride, which is made up of cheap and plentiful iron and nitrogen.

  • The magnets used today in climate technologies, like EV drive trains and wind turbines, are made up of rare earths like neodymium, which is found in dilute quantities around the world and has to be aggressively mined.
  • "It's an environmental disaster," says Rowntree of rare earth magnets. "Every ton of magnets mined makes 2,000 tons of waste."
  • In addition to being an environmental issue, China dominates the rare earth supply chain and has set export restrictions at various times over the years.

Big picture: Demand for permanent magnets for the energy transition — whether they contain rare earth metals or not — is set to explode as sales of EVs grow, the offshore wind industry takes off, and on-land wind farms continue to be built.

  • Many consumer electronics and industrial manufacturing also use permanent magnets, so the market will grow outside of climate tech, too.
  • If Niron is able to steadily grow production and make its magnets in bigger formats, it could provide an option for rare-earth-free magnets to the market.
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