Niron Magnetics of northeast Minneapolis is commencing production of next-generation electric-motor magnets to power a greener economy with global industrial partners.
Niron has built a 22,000-square-foot site to produce prototype magnets from lower-cost, domestic materials, including iron or recycled steel and ammonia.
They will be used in wind turbines, electric vehicles and other electric motor-powered equipment that today are largely reliant on increasingly expensive magnets made from rare-earth materials mined in China.
"There was lots of scientific and engineering work over the last decade," said CEO Andy Blackburn. "And now we're scaling to production. We are a 10-year 'overnight success.'''
Last week, Niron was awarded $17.5 million by the U.S. Energy Department's Advance Research Projects Agency, on top of $60 million raised previously, including $45 million in private equity.
The department has followed Niron since 2012, when its process was developed by U of M Prof. Jian Ping-Wang, a Niron founder and adviser.
"This is a precursor to full-scale production … thousands of tons of magnets for our industrial partners for electric motors in wind turbines, cars and other equipment that requires an electric motor,'' Blackburn said.
Niron aims to double employment to 60 technicians and others and expand the pilot plant by 60% in the next year.
Niron is heading for ''full-scale U.S. production and supply-chain security of rare earth-free magnets equivalent to 167% of the White House's 2030 electric vehicle goal or 103% of its 2030 offshore wind-power goal,'' the company said.
Customers include GreenSpur Wind, a U.K. company that has developed a new generator for huge offshore wind generators; Western Digital, the global maker of data-storage products; and an undisclosed global manufacturer of power tools and wind turbines.
A recent Commerce Department report cited Niron as the U.S. leader in lower-cost, 95%-cleaner, domestic-material magnets.
It projected that demand for magnets will triple by 2035 as the U.S. and other countries move increasingly to electrify transportation and power generation. That also should reduce reliance on fossil fuels that drive greenhouse gases and the mounting costs of global climate change.
Frank Johnson, Niron chief technology officer, said the Energy Department grant of $17.5 million will help Niron "scale up our process for first-generation iron-nitride magnets and subsequent generations based on the same 'powder.'
"The subsequent generations will have more magnetic strength," Johnson added.
Niron expects to eventually produce "thousands of tons" of clean-earth industrial magnets.
GreenSpur has developed a generator for offshore wind turbines, using Niron magnets that are lighter and more efficient, as tested and verified by ORE Catapult, a U.K.-based research center. The Niron magnets are nearly half the weight and as powerful as rare-earth magnets.
A growing number of companies and countries have pledged to halt heat-trapping carbon emissions by 2050 in order to avoid the worst predicted effects of climate change.
Niron's iron-nitride magnets are formed from a chemical-technological recipe that is engineered at the tiniest nanoparticle level. It is formulated and heated to varying degrees to form hard, lighter-weight magnets.
Blackburn said: "We've perfected the recipes, and now we just have to bake a whole lot of different types of cakes. We are the Sara Lee of next-generation magnets.''
Niron has raised about two-thirds of its capital from private investors. Its largest investor is Anzu Partners, a Washington, D.C.-based investment firm that specializes in life science and industrial technology.
Blackburn, who joined Niron in 2017, is an aeronautical engineer and Stanford MBA who has worked with several digital technology and material science concerns.
"The [future] plan is to raise more private money and build our own [much larger] factory," Blackburn said, as well as possible joint-venture plants with customers.
"We are working with companies across electric motors, sensors, material handling, power tools, and consumer appliances and industrial motors ... including vehicle electric-motor drivetrains," Blackburn said.