Looking to Replace Neodymium with Cerium in the Magnet World

Now we know why Molycorp keeps hanging around the Ames Laboratory down in Iowa – hoped-for new applications for the rare earth element, cerium.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s national lab will receive $4.5 million in DOE funding to advance two more cutting-edge research projects at the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy’s Rare Earth Alternatives in Critical Technologies program – in short, the non-descript place with the sign out front that – hopefully – just says ARPA-E/REACT.

“The first of the two projects is for advanced research to develop a new class of high-strength permanent magnets using the rare-earth element cerium…The research will look at combining other metallic elements with cerium to create a new powerful magnet with high-temperature stability for electric vehicle motors. Partners in the project are General Motors, NovaTorque and Molycorp Minerals,” according to a release put out by the folks at DOE/Ames Laboratory and posted on physorg.com

Cerium is four times more abundant than neodymium, which is the critical element used in today’s permanent magnets.

Here’s the interesting bit: Molycorp will provide the three-year, $2.2 million project the important materials supply chain and development path for commercialization of these materials, the release says.

Cerium will apparently be one of the top two rare earths produced by Molycorp, in terms of volume, once its Mountain Pass mine cranks up production. Cerium and lanthanum are two of the most common REEs out there.

“If successful in this high-risk, high-reward research project, the Ames led team will blaze a transformational new direction in high-strength magnets, enabling magnet manufacturing from Cerium, a material much more available in the U.S. than today’s state-of-the-art approaches,” said Mark Johnson, ARPA-E Program Director for REACT.

The second project doesn’t involve Molycorp this time, but Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, which will work with the Ames Lab to reduce dependence on critical materials like rare earths in wind turbines and electric vehicles by developing a new material based on manganese as a rare-earth free alternative to rare-earth permanent magnets.

These manganese composite magnets hold the potential to double the magnetic strength relative to current magnets while using raw materials that are inexpensive and abundant.

“If this over-the-horizon advanced research effort is successful, the manganese composite magnets could reduce U.S. dependence on expensive rare-earth material imports and reduce the cost and improve the efficiency of green-energy applications, such as wind turbines and electric vehicles,” the release states.

In 2011, DOE has awarded $156 million to ARPA-E for 60 different high-risk / high reward research project related to renewable power, energy efficiency, and national energy security. For a complete list of projects visit: http://www.arpa-e.energy.gov.