The permanent magnetic is a quiet, unobtrusive work horse in so many applications that it, like many things that are mechatronics related, is mind bogglingly (is that a word?) pervasive. Magnets are the key material technology to enable high efficiency and power dense electric motors. And electric motors are everywhere.
The particular magentic material that has enabled the CD, DVD, Hard Disk Drive, high performance speakers, magnetic resonance imaging and many other technical wonders, is Neodymium Iron Boron. Based on General Motors research on magnet materials (in the 1980’s), scientists found a particular molecule of these materials which exhibited extremely high magnetic strength. And, of course, one of the immediate benefits would be reducing the size of starter motors in cars by 30% and the weight of the motors by even more. Great stuff!
But making the molecule wasn’t exactly a picnic. Alloying was easy, but it turned out you had to cool the material down suddenly in order to get just the right molecule to form in a powder and then sinter and magnetize the result. A whole new process had to be developed, called spin casting, to cool the material quickly enough to generate high quality raw material for NeFeB magnets. I’m sure there are a lot more technical details, but I don’t remember much from my tour of the GM Magnequench facility in Indiana. It’s been several years.
NeFeB alloy has been dramatically improved and as demand has increased, fortunately, the price has dropped from the extremely high levels during it’s introduction. As prices have declined it is estimated that 16,571 tons of Neodymium were used in magnet making in 2009 and 24,635 tons will be used by the year 2014. That’s an increase of 48% in five years. That’s huge.
The reason for all the increase is the fact that NeFeB magnets make really efficient motors. So the new generation of appliance motors and air conditioning compressort that include NeFeB magnetics to increase the flux of the rotor combined with electric and hybrid car motors are driving demand more more magnets. And now some emerging technology in the wind power marketplace, direct drive generators, will require many tons of additional material.
But what about our friends at GM Magnequench? They’re gone! The great future, full of potential for a US manufacturing company, lost to the sale of the company and closing the manufacturing facility. GM sold the company to New Materials Technology in Toronto which is owned by China. But the new owners couldn’t run the US factory at a profit. Even at $20/hour for labor. All the manufacturing jobs, gone.
There is currently no NeFeB magnet manufacturing in the US. Which is kind of crazy when you think of all the applications we have for the stuff. Even worse is the fact that a lot of advanced military hardware is dependent upon the magnets for guidance motors on missiles and a host of other applications. And according to one source China now owns 97% of the world’s Rare Earth Elements sources. Which is why there are now hundreds of companies in China selling magnets.
On the positive side, this has lead to overall declining prices for these magnets. But will that continue to be the case? The Chinese government is expecting to decrease their exports of magnets by 34% next year. This could spell trouble for many companies.
But there is hope. The USGS has reported that the Mountain Pass Mine in Southern California is one of the largest and richest deposits of Rare Earths, including Neodymium, in the world. And Molycorp is ramping up to fill the gap with new mining and manufacturing capacity. Go get ’em guys! Free enterprise at work.