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Electron Energy Corporation (EEC) has won a contract from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for Phase II research into the production of anisotropic magnet powder coated with iron nanoparticles.

The USD500,000 (GBP308,000) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract runs from February 2009 through January 2011.

Michael H Walmer, EEC president, said: ‘We are confident that our proprietary research into the iron-nanoparticle coating process will lead to the development of superior powders that can be used to create a new class of high-performance nanocomposite magnets with a much higher maximum energy product, or (BH)max, than is currently available.’ He noted that, if the proposed technologies can double the theoretical performance potential of current rare-earth magnets, it would have a dramatic impact on permanent magnet markets and applications.

The new high-performance magnets, whose energy product could approach 100MGOe, would result in lighter-weight, smaller-volume and lower-cost electromagnetic devices for both commercial and military applications.

Walmer said that the new magnets would eventually replace a portion of the rare-earth magnets now in use: ‘When magnets are smaller, device costs decrease not only because less magnet material is required to obtain the same magnetic field strength, but the size and weight of surrounding components – such as coils, housing and cooling systems – can be reduced as well.’ The trend towards increased miniaturisation is driving demand for lighter, higher-strength magnets worldwide.

Smaller and lighter magnets with higher field strengths would benefit applications where the smallest reductions in weight and mass translate into significant savings.

In space-based applications, for example, weight reduction can result in savings of more than USD100,000 per pound, depending on the space vehicle and launch system.

Peter Dent, EEC vice-president of business development, anticipates that nanocomposite magnets would be used in applications for the defence, aerospace, energy, medical and automotive markets.

He claims that higher field strength magnets would also be ideal for specific applications such as hybrid cars, sensors, generators and electric motors, medical imaging, computer disk drives and audio systems.

Dent said: ‘Phase II research will focus on developing powder processing technologies, consolidating powder into magnetic forms and optimising magnetic properties.’ EEC, a US producer of rare-earth magnets for critical applications, successfully completed Phase I research in June 2008, demonstrating the technical feasibility of this project.

Over the past two decades, advances in magnet performance have come in slow, incremental improvements.

Jinfang Liu, vice-president of technology and engineering at EEC and a researcher in rare-earth magnet materials and systems, said: ‘The innovation of our approach lies in the iron nanoparticle coating of anisotropic hard magnetic powders that act as a substrate.

‘Producing smaller-size magnets that deliver higher performance for our customers’ products and applications is our objective.’ EEC will be supported in this research effort by Delaware University’s Department of Physics and Astronomy under the leadership of Dr George Hadjipanayis.

EEC and Delaware have collaborated for the past 20 years on a number of joint projects, including the discovery of ultra-high-temperature SmCo magnets and the development of advanced magnetic meta-materials.

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