Share This Page

Pitt, Alcoa researchers testing new magnets

| 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 joravecz@tribweb.com.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.