There's an almost electric anticipation at Niron Magnetics.
Niron, born in 2012 in a University of Minnesota laboratory, is constructing a pilot plant that will build magnets and a limited number of small, prototype electric motors with partner-customers. The critical magnets should be produced at half-or-less of today's economic and environmental costs.
They will help power more efficiently, if Niron's management and investors are right, the next generation of electric vehicles, wind turbines, medical and other electric-powered equipment in a greener economy.
In the last several months alone, 21-employee Niron has raised nearly $30 million in private and public capital. Prospective investors are watching intently.
"We expect in 2022 to distribute small quantity engineering samples to customers and prototype motors to be tested," said Niron CEO Andy Blackburn. "We're working with customers to design motors and other devices. We have a lot of interest with 'rare-earth' prices going through the roof.''
These next generation magnets, built with plentiful, recyclable iron and nitrogen, are designed to replace the expensive rare-earth materials, largely found in China, that must be extracted from the ground and create significant pollution when processed.
The four-year-old university spinoff is building a 25,000-square-foot pilot plant next to its research facility in northeast Minneapolis.
"The challenge has been that a lot of low-carbon technologies have significant environmental challenges, dirty secrets,'' quipped Blackburn. "Such as rare-earth materials, lithium and cobalt for batteries. It can be environmentally degrading.
"The low-carbon economy requires massive electrification. And requires a whole new family of devices that turn motion into electricity such as wind turbines. And new families of devices that turn electricity into motion, such as electric vehicles."
And most of today's electric motors are based on century-old technology and are relatively inefficient in powering air conditioners, elevators, appliances and factory equipment.
"High-strength permanent magnets will allow us to not only decarbonize electricity but also make our existing consumers of electricity more efficient," Blackburn said. "It's the retrofitting of our electrical world. It's going to take a lot of next-generation magnets."
Niron said its magnets will be the world's first commercialized high-performance magnets free of rare earth minerals. The elusive secret sauce was finding and exploiting the correct chemical arrangements with iron, nitrogen and other materials.
"This particular arrangement has eluded people for a long time for scientific and engineering reasons," Blackburn said last week. "We've been able to crack that task."
Niron says its process "combines breakthroughs in nanomaterials with … mature metallurgical methods to deliver high-performance magnets at half the cost.''
This also could help trigger an industry worth hundreds of billions, and acceleration of an enhanced, renewable-powered economy that significantly cuts greenhouse gases.
Niron Magnetics last year raised $21.5 million in mostly private venture capital, as well as a $5 million U.S. Department of Energy grant. It's working with partners such as Volvo, Volta Energy Technologies and General Motors. The automakers are seeking more efficient drivetrains and other equipment that feature North American magnets.
"We are very excited about teaming with Niron Magnetics and see their 'Iron Nitride' permanent magnets as a key enabling technology," Ayman El-Refaie, project coordinator and professor of electrical and computer engineering at Marquette University, told Automotive Industries magazine recently. "Beyond this project, Niron's technology will help achieve higher performance over a broad range of applications.''
Blackburn, 62, is a veteran technology executive who holds master's degrees in aeronautical engineering and business from Stanford. A veteran of Cisco and other tech companies, he joined in 2017 to shepherd Niron Magnetics from lab to commercialization.
"You don't tackle climate change just pulling stuff off the shelf," Blackburn said last week. "It takes innovation. It has been tricky. We're working with 'nanostructured material.' Very small-scale material. And we're replacing a whole bunch of old technology with new technology."
The demand and price for rare earth and other key metals globally has been driven astronomically by surging demand for wind turbines, electric vehicles and other electric-powered equipment on wheels, in offices, homes and plants.
"Magnets have not kept pace with demand of higher performance, lighter-weight machines," Blackburn said. "As hybrid and electric vehicles fill the streets, and wind-power generation continues to be one of the fastest-growing means of producing electricity, the demand for increased efficiency needs to be met with innovative new magnetic material.
"There's no downside to what we are doing. What attracts people is it has so many positives. We have a way to do well while doing good. That's what energizes the team."
Niron's board and advisers include former General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner, for his industry connections, and former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, an energy expert who knows government.