SMSC boost investment in MN-made clean environment products

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By Lee Egerstrom

The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC), an early “Angel investor” in a Minneapolis startup company that may make automobiles less environmentally hazardous and potentially less expensive, has increased its investment in the clean technology.

SMSC has provided $5 million in new funding for Niron Magnetics Inc. It was started at a University of Minnesota science laboratory and is nearing production stage of the world’s first high-performance, “rare earth-free” permanent magnets to be used in computers, auto engines, various electronic devices and appliances.

That new investment in Niron Magnetics was made in October along with others that included the University of Minnesota itself and with technology investment arms for major auto manufacturers, GM Ventures and Stellantis Ventures.

In total, investors made $33 million in additional funds available for Niron Magnetics to expand its pilot production facilities and manufacturing capacity in Minneapolis. The company doubled its employment from 30 to 60 people in the past year and said it expects to double employment again in the new, current year.

GM Ventures and Stellantis Ventures both invest in new technology companies that have environmental and potentially economic importance to their parent firms’ auto manufacturing businesses.

The GM is General Motors. Stellantis is the European-based conglomerate that includes the Abarth, Alfa Romeo, Chrysler, Citroen, Dodge, DS Automobiles, Fiat, Jeep, Lancia, Maserati, Opel, Peugeot, Ram and Vauxhall global auto brands.

They join with Volvo Cars Tech Fund, which was another early investor.

SMSC’s investment in Niron, meanwhile, is anchored in the tribe’s Dakota values rather than from direct ties to the developing technology.

“We were first introduced to Niron in 2016 through the University of Minnesota where this innovative technology was being developed,” SMSC Chairman Keith Anderson said in announcing the new investment.

“We liked that the company’s mission aligned with our tribe’s values to be good stewards of the environment and to be a good neighbor by supporting Minnesota innovation and economic growth.”

That respect was returned. Niron chief executive officer Jonathan Rowntree said in a statement:

“Having the support and backing of the SMSC from the beginning has been so important to Niron Magnetics and the development of this new technology. We are grateful for the tribe’s ongoing support of what we believe will transformational to clean energy.”
Niron is creating the first permanent magnet made from readily available and sustainable materials. What most people without engineering degrees or advanced knowledge of various other sciences wouldn’t know is that high tech machines, including electric (EV) and other modern transportation vehicles, depend on magnet component parts.

Niron is shooting for full production in 2025.
Its patented Clean Earth Magnet products are made from generally available iron and nitrogen raw materials that can be sourced globally and with environmentally sustainable processes. It is expected they will produce high performance, permanent magnetic materials at half the cost of existing products.

But cost is only one of the benefits. Current magnets are made from what are called rare-earth materials. These include elements most readers did not study in high school chemistry classes that have strong magnetic qualities and can be made permanent often by bonding with other elements.

What gives them the “rare earth” name is that they aren’t found in easily mined veins like iron or copper. Instead, they are in rare finds, recovered from massive strip mining practices that have enormous environmental consequences. That comes from ripping up the land in mining and from related leaching and toxic wastes.

Science sites on the Internet explain these elements, their properties, and their difficulties with extraction for the seriously scientific curious. Laymen can find helpful and easily understood information from a report in Motor Trend magazine by Frank Markus, published Nov. 8, 2023, headlined New Made-in-America Magnet Could Make Cheaper, Greener EV Motors.

Markus reports that 90 percent of all rare-earth materials such as neodymium, a chemical element, come from China and demand is outstripping supplies. Niron’s Clean Earth Magnets can reduce environmental impacts by 75 percent by eliminated the shifting through tons of earth in search of rare materials to make existing permanent magnets.
Neodymium magnets were invented in 1984 by General Motors and investment partners. They consist of neodymium, iron and boron and are the most widely used rare earth magnets at this time. In addition to automobile motors, they are essential for electronic devices such as mobile phones, microphones, loudspeaker and some musical instruments.

Depending on China for rare earth materials is also a threat for the global economy. Supply chain disputes between the U.S. and China dating back six years were major driving forces in the global inflation that only now appears to be slowing.

This also helps explain an earlier $17.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to help develop sustainable permanent magnets. That grant came from DOE’s Seeding Critical Advances for Leading Energy technologies with Untapped Potential (SCALEUP) program.

Andy Blackburn, Executive Vice President for Strategy at Niron, cited the existing supply and environmental problems as a supply crisis affecting the global economy. Permanent magnet technology was developed by U.S. and Japanese companies and research institutions, but “moved to China.”

In an interview with The Circle, Blackburn said no one wants “the instability” that comes from supply chain vulnerabilities. Moreover, constantly expanding demand for permanent magnetic products keeps adding to the need for Niron’s Clean Earthy Magnets.
New technology keeps adding battery operated demands, he said. Large wind energy developments along shore lines, for instance, require 6,000 pounds of magnets. New cars require from 5 to 10 pounds of these magnets.

Analysts currently value the permanent magnet market at about $50 billion globally. Blackburn said potential demand could grow to about $150 billion annually.

This would be a big reason for Time Magazine to name Niron’s Clean Earth Magnets as one of the best inventions of 2023. Because its materials are globally sourced commodities, the Clean Earth Magnets are less vulnerable to “geopolitical tensions” that contribute to supply and price instability.

The environmental and economic stability aspects would appeal to SMSC. But so does the University of Minnesota connection.

Niron Magnetics was founded as a spinoff company from research on iron nitride conducted by Jian-Ping Wang, a Distinguished McKnight University Professor and the Robert F. Hartmann Chair of the University’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

He and his research team developed the iron nitride, he holds 65 patents and became a member of the National Academy of Inventors in 2022, and he continues to serve as chief scientific officer for Niron.

University biographical materials also note that Wang is a founder of three other companies as well.

Blackburn, originally from the Silicon Valley, likened Wang’s involvement with spinoff companies and linkages the computer and electronics industries have with nearby California academia. And, he said, what Wang and Niron are experiencing here is also similar to the University’s own close engagement with Minnesota’s Medical Alley medical device industry.

The Motor Trend magazine article is at https://www.motortrend.com/news/
gm-niron-iron-nitride-magnet-ev-motor-tech.