The University of Alabama

Energy Supply Problem 2.0

By Adam Jones
Photos by Jeff Hanson 

Hong, right, and UA doctoral student Jihoon Park display material in a vial.

Hong, right, and UA doctoral student Jihoon Park display material in a vial.

For all the guff given traditional energy technology for relying on an ever-dwindling supply of oil and coal, emerging green energy technology faces a similar supply problem, just direr.

Efficient electric machines are looked to as crucial to emerging energy industries, powering green technology such as electric cars and helping wind turbines make electricity. Unfortunately, they are powered by a hard-to-process global supply of certain naturally-magnetic minerals that grow costlier as demand increases. In fact, the United States Department of Energy estimates usage of electric vehicles and offshore wind farms could create a shortage of these minerals as early as 2015.

A University of Alabama engineering professor hopes to swap these rare-earth minerals with more abundant substitutes to drive down costs and encourage swifter adoption.

The DOE recently awarded Dr. Yang-Ki Hong, along with a team of researchers, a $1.26 million grant to determine if the idea works by creating a bulk permanent magnet using the substitute minerals and demonstrating it can function as well as, if not better, than current rare-earth permanent magnets.

“We want to prove our concept and then manufacture permanent magnets without these rare-earth materials,” Hong said.

Hong, an electrical and computer engineering professor, is the lead on a team that includes UA’s Drs. Tim Haskew and Oleg Mryasov, along with researchers from Mississippi State University and the University of California San Diego.

Hong, shown here in his UA lab, leads a $1.26 million DOE grant to develop an alternative magnet.

Hong, shown here in his UA lab, leads a $1.26 million DOE grant to develop an alternative magnet.

The grant began in 2012 and lasts for three years. The DOE program funded 14 projects nationwide aimed at reducing or eliminating the dependence on rare-earth minerals through development of substitutes in the crucial areas of electric vehicle motors and wind generators. The DOE hopes to improve how the U.S. produces and uses energy by accelerating innovations in clean technology.

The use of rare-earth minerals as permanent magnets, materials that create their own continuous magnetic field, has caught on in roughly the past 30 years as research has expanded their power and usage. Rare-earth permanent magnets are the most powerful and efficient magnets, and their size and reliability suit them well for electric motors that use their magnetic field as power.

Trouble is, though, the increased demand for the limited supply of rare earth has jumped prices as much as 700 percent for some minerals in the past year, according to the DOE. Also, about 95 percent of the world’s supply of rare earth materials is produced in China.

Price instability makes it difficult to rely on rare-earth minerals and threatens widespread adoption of many energy solutions by U.S. companies, according to the DOE.

Hong has one U.S. patent pending and has filed for another provisional patent.

He is working with The University of Alabama Office for Technology Transfer to help guide research and development efforts with an emphasis on ensuring commercialization, said Dr. Rick Swatloski, director of OTT.

The increased demand for the limited supply of rare earth minerals has jumped prices as much as 700 percent, triggering searches for alternatives.

The increased demand for the limited supply of rare earth minerals has jumped prices as much as 700 percent, triggering searches for alternatives.

Under Hong’s proposal, the substitute permanent magnet would use the abundant elements of manganese and bismuth surrounded in a film of cobalt iron and nickel iron that would be much cheaper to produce than rare-earth magnets. This magnet could also operate at higher temperatures than rare-earth magnets, which begin to lose magnetic properties when hotter than roughly 390 degrees Fahrenheit, Hong said.

The grant from the DOE is the first step toward commercialization, he said.

“If we succeed in proof of concept, we will have more chances to do advanced research,” Hong said.

Graduate and undergraduate students working with Hong and Haskew in labs devoted to magnetic materials and devices, along with electromechanical systems, are learning advance technologies and will be better prepared to work in these fields after graduating, Hong said.

Dr. Hong is the E. A. Larry Drummond Endowed Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering while Dr. Haskew is professor and head of the electrical and computer engineering department, both within UA’s College of Engineering. The grant funding comes from a program called REACT, or Rare Earth Alternatives in Critical Technologies, a part of the DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. Dr. Mryasov is an associate professor of physics in UA’s College of Arts and Sciences. Hong is also a research participant in a $1.6 million international effort, led by UA’s Dr. Takao Suzuki and funded by the G8 Research Council Initiative on Multilateral Research Funding, which also seeks an alternative resource to rare-earth materials.