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Making the World's Most Powerful Magnets Cheaper and Greener

Ames Laboratory scientists have a new process to prepare neodymium-iron-boron permanent magnets.

Republished from an article written by Mark Ingebretsen that appeared in Inquiry, a publication of Ames Laboratory.

Neodymium-Iron-Boron Permanent Magnets

Ames Laboratory scientists have come up with a new process to prepare neodymium-iron-boron (Nd2Fe14B) permanent magnets that has the potential to enable them to be produced economically in the United States. What's more, the Ames Laboratory process doesn't produce the environmentally unfriendly byproducts that result from traditional manufacturing methods.

The Most Powerful Magnets in the World

"Neodymium-iron-boron magnets represent perhaps one of the most important uses of rare-earth elements," says Karl Gschneidner Jr., senior metallurgist at Ames Lab, who co-developed the process along with Rick Schmidt, principal scientist emeritus. "They're the most powerful magnets in the world." And they can be found in every computer and every hybrid and electric vehicle that rolls off an assembly line as well as a wide array of consumer, commercial and military products.

The Rare Earth Magnet Industry Moved to China

Little wonder. Permanent magnets make up a $4.1 billion global industry. Over the years, however, production of neodymium- based magnets has shifted to China and other low-cost-producing nations. The hope is that the new technology will help U.S.-based companies compete with these other nations on an economic basis.

The Schmidt-Gschneidner process leveraged know-how that had been amassed at the Ames Laboratory for more than half a century. Early lessons learned from the Lab's World War II role processing uranium were put to use by scientists researching rare earths. As breakthroughs at the Lab continued over the years, the scientific community began to view the Ames' facility as "one of the best places to be if you're researching rare earths," Gschneidner says. Now, fast forward to the early 1980s, when the discovery of Nd2Fe14B magnets by U.S. and Japanese researchers set off a renewed flurry of related research at the Ames Lab and elsewhere.

Owing to their unique advantages of strength and durability, manufacturers began incorporating Nd2Fe14B magnets into more and more products.

The unfortunate tradeoff was an increase in the amount of unhealthy waste materials created as ever-larger amounts of neodymium for the magnets was being processed.

Indeed, the conventional refining process starts with the neodymium oxide, but goes through two steps in order to obtain the neodymium metal. Waste products are associated with both these steps, and they must be handled in an environmentally friendly manner.

A One-Step Process for Refining Neodymium

In 2009, Ames Laboratory researchers began work on a greener process for refining neodymium. Instead of two steps, "it is a one-step process going from the neodymium oxide to the neodymium master alloy," Gschneidner explains, "and since the end-products are completely utilized, there are no waste materials to dispose of."

Bringing the Magnet Industry Back to the US

A green process with the potential to bring a greater share of the permanent magnet industry back to U.S. shores represents a major achievement in itself. But the greatest long-term benefit of the Ames Lab process may be yet to come. Gschneidner believes that "a modification of this process should enable us to prepare a lanthanum [element 57 on the periodic table] master alloy to produce lanthanum-nickel-metal hydride batteries, which are used in hybrid and electric vehicles."

A cheaper, greener battery for the world's growing fleet of hybrid vehicles could eliminate untold tons of carbon dioxide, and it's just the kind of industry needed to help ensure America's economic health for decades to come.

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rare earth magnet
Producing high strength magnets - such as this  neodymium-iron-boron magnet - is one of the most important uses of rare earth elements. Photo by Ames Laboratory, United States Department of Energy.

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