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Pitt, Alcoa researchers testing new magnets

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By John D. Oravecz
Thursday, June 19, 2014, 11:19 p.m.

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and Alcoa Inc.'s Technical Center in Upper Burrell are developing high-performance magnets that they say don't require more expensive rare-earth elements.

Their magnesium-aluminum alloy magnets use materials that are easier to obtain than rare earths, and can be produced using more energy-efficient methods, they say.

China controls 90 percent of the global market for the 17 light- and heavy-weight elements, which are used to make key components for mobile phones, flat-screen TVs, computer monitors, hybrid cars and smart bombs.

The researchers on Thursday said they won a $300,000 National Science Foundation grant to continue their research through April 2017.

“Current methods of producing permanent magnets are expensive and energy-intensive, requiring imported rare-earth metals and high-temperatures,” lead researcher Jorg M.K. Wiezorek, professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at Pitt, said in a statement. “By using a more affordable and less expensive magnesium-aluminum alloy we can reduce a six-step manufacturing process into two stages and more efficiently and affordably produce permanent magnets.”

The magnets could be used in power generation equipment and uses such as electric cars and windmills.

“It doesn't surprise me” that research is being conducted to produce less-expensive substitutes for rare-earths, said Lisa Reisman, editor of MetalMiner, a metals website based in Chicago. She said automotive companies and others likely have their own researchers working on alternative materials that can be produced at lower costs.

Wiezorek could not be reached for further comment. Also involved in the research are M. Ravi Shankar, associated professor of industrial engineering at Pitt, and Hasso Weiland, technical associate professor at the Alcoa Technical Center.

Their method involves using a novel machining-based process combined with low-temperature capture to generate bulk permanent magnets for high-performance uses.

In the statement, Wiezorek said the research will explore the effective manufacture of rare-earth-metal-free magnetic materials, but gave no timeline. Magnesium and aluminum are abundant metals that can hasten development of wind turbine power generation to electric vehicle battery charging, he said.

The researchers said their machining-based manufacturing technique can be adapted to other alloys.

In the battle over rare-earth elements, China has outmaneuvered the rest of the world, cornering the supply of materials, the Tribune-Review has reported.

Export prices have surged 100 percent to 600 percent since China began limiting the release of its rare earths in summer 2009. Prices on certain elements that comprise the rare earths soared several thousand percent.

John D. Oravecz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7882 or

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