Permanent magnet motors are by far the most commonly used electric motors in the electric vehicle market, but by relying on rare-earth metals, they are not as clean as the planet needs them to be, nor are they as cheap as the market needs them to be. On top of that, because of the necessity of rare earths, they, along with many other technologies, are connected with the human rights violations occurring in mineral-rich countries like Congo.
Yet, outside of EVs, permanent magnets specifically are essential components in all automobiles, from their role in audio systems, to fuel pumps, to air circulation. As the demand for EVs skyrockets — the United States alone is expected to add 1 million new EVs to its roads this year — the demand is also increasing for more stable, sustainable, and ethical alternatives to rare-earth magnets.
With $33 million in funding, Minneapolis-based startup, Niron Magnetics, plans to supply just that with its “Clean Earth Magnet,” which according to the startup, is the world’s first high-strength, rare earth-free permanent magnet. Backed by three major automotive industry players, with GM Ventures and Stellantis Ventures participating in its most recent round and previous funding from Volvo Cars Tech Fund, it’s clear the industry is leading the shift.
“Nearly 40 years ago, GM’s R&D team discovered and commercialized the world’s first high-powered, rare-earth permanent magnet material,” Anirvan Coomer, the president of GM Ventures, said in a statement, adding that the investment brings its history with specialized magnets “full circle.”
“Niron’s Clean Earth Magnet could help GM make more affordable EVs for its customers out of more abundant materials,” he said.
Instead of rare earths, Niron’s magnet technology is based on the chemical compound iron nitride which, as the startup explains, enables magnets that possess inherently higher magnetization than their counterparts. On top of that, the startup says its magnets can be produced at half the cost, by relying on abundant iron and nitrogen raw materials that can be sourced globally and sustainably, absent of the expensive and intensive mining rare earths are known for.
If that wasn’t enough, the startup also posits that its Clean Earth Magnet has better temperature stability compared to other currently available options, which is essential to maintaining the high performance of an EV.
As an early-stage startup, Niron plans to use the funding to expand current pilot production facilities and scale manufacturing capacity to begin the initial sales of its magnets to a niche customer base including its big-name investors.
“Making powerful magnets from plentiful commodity materials decouples new production from rare earth mine development and lowers overall environmental impact, which directly aligns with Stellantis’ commitment to reach carbon net zero by 2038,” Adam Bazih, the managing partner at Stellantis Ventures said in a statement.
“We were drawn to invest in Niron by the impressive sustainability benefits that its Clean Earth Magnet technology offers for vehicles and the inherent scalability of their solution,” he added.
GM, Stellantis, and Volvo aren’t the only carmakers attempting to shift away from rare earth minerals. Tesla, which initially used induction motors without rare earth permanent magnets but switched in 2017, said earlier this year that it cut its rare-earth usage by 25% per vehicle and aims to go rare-earth free in its next-generation EV models. Others, including Toyota, BMW, Nissan, and more have rare-earth free magnet efforts in the works, as a recent article by Reuters lays out.
In addition to big-time carmakers, the round also saw participation from previous local investors like the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC) and the University of Minnesota (UMN).
On top of its introduction to the automotive industry, Niron also plans to increase customer prototyping programs and support small-scale product runs to enter markets like consumer electronics, industrial motors, wind turbines, and more. The reason is because, due to their powerful magnetic fields, rare earth minerals are what’s made modern technology possible. But as more industries have to shift away from rare earths due to the economic, environmental, and ethical disadvantages, alternatives will be in demand across markets.
“We look forward to collaborating closely with all of our investors and partners to work towards enabling a rare earth-free future in magnetics,” the CEO of Niron, Jonathan Rowntree said in a statement.