With sintered rare earth magnets a $4 billion worldwide market, the U.S. could be a bigger producer of these magnets - which are not actually rare - and are used in hybrid vehicle motors and wind turbine generators. | Illustration Courtesy of of Electron Energy Corporation |
Electron Energy Corporation is one of a kind.
According to Peter Dent, vice president of business development for the second generation, family-owned company in Landisville, Pa., it is the last remaining U.S. producer of sintered rare earth magnets.
With sintered rare earth magnets a $4 billion worldwide market, the U.S. could be a bigger producer of these magnets - which are not actually rare - and are used in hybrid vehicle motors and wind turbine generators.
In September 2008, EEC received a $750,000 Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and used the money, in a collaborative effort with University of Delaware, to develop a process that allows manufacturers to maximize the electrical resistivity of Neodymium Iron Boron and Samarium Cobalt sintered rare earth magnets without reducing their magnetic strength.
"We hope that by improving our technology we can differentiate ourselves from foreign competitors and bring back manufacturing jobs in this industry," says Dent. "There is a potential large segment of the $4 billion worldwide market for these types of magnets."
According to Dent, over 6,000 Americans worked in the permanent magnet industry in the 1990s, but increased foreign competition, especially from China, took most of these jobs overseas.
Greater production, electrical resistivity
Electric motors use magnets to transform electrical energy into mechanical energy. Sintered rare earth magnets are in increasing demand because they produce incredibly strong magnetic fields at small sizes, allowing manufacturers to build smaller, lighter motors.
According to Dr. Melania Marinescu, a senior research and development engineer at EEC, motors that use sintered rare earth magnets often operate at high speeds and produce electrical eddy currents that increase temperatures and reduce overall efficiency.
To combat this problem, EEC and University of Delaware researchers developed a manufacturing process that increases sintered rare earth magnets electrical resistivity by at least 30 percent at no extra cost to the manufacturer. Magnets with increased electrical resistivity reduce motor efficiency losses even when motors operate a high speeds.
Officials at EEC say the company has already sent out magnet samples to two major manufacturing companies. EEC has two patents pending with the United States Patent and Trademark Office and plans to file patents overseas. The company's engineers are working on further improving production processes to allow manufacturing of these magnets to take place on a larger scale. If the patents are issued, Dent says the company may license some production to U.S. manufacturers while continuing to produce a substantial portion of the magnets themselves.
"It's a challenging task because we are working with brittle intermetallics that want to conduct electricity," says Dent. "Increasing electrical resistivity significantly reduces energy consumption. An airplane with a more efficient motor would have to burn less fuel to reach its destination."