MagNEO Project to Replace Rare Earth Elements for Permanent Magnets via 3D Printing

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The EU-funded MagNEO project has a budget of €7,713,280.99 (that’s seven million, seven hundred thirteen thousand, and two hundred and eighty Euro, and 99 cents) to produce 3D printed permanent magnets. The “Advanced Additively Manufactured Permanent Magnets for New Energy and Mobility Applications” project aims to replace rare earth elements (REE) in permanent magnets with AlNiCo (Aluminum, Nickel, Cobalt). Rare earth elements are difficult to extract, and their production is largely controlled by China or sourced from ethically problematic locations. They are also subject to intense price fluctuations and potential supply disruptions due to diplomatic pressure, war, or supply chain issues. As the demand for more batteries, electric engines, and green technologies increases, there will be immense pressure on the rare earth element market, likely causing prices to rise significantly.

Some believe that we don’t have enough copper for a green energy transition, let alone some of the more cumbersome-to-extract materials such as scandium, neodymium, ytterbium, and others. Historically, rare earths were not actually rare but were very difficult to find and mine compared to silver, copper, or gold. However, these materials could now become rare due to historical disinvestment and increased demand for electric cars and electronics. Many industries would grind to a halt without rare earths. At the same time, permanent magnets have broad defense applications, being used in radar systems, missiles, electronic warfare systems, and communications. As tensions with China rise, finding a sustainable path to producing permanent magnets is of utmost importance. Historically, some of these elements were conflict minerals, and they are likely to play a bigger role in future conflicts.

MagNEO

MagNEO will run for 48 months and aims to replace REE in applications like electric car magnets, where investigators expect up to a kilogram of rare earths to be needed for future electric engines. The team also notes that 60% of REE are extracted in China, 90% are refined there, and 98% of the world’s permanent magnets are produced in China. This highlights how strategically China has secured a near-complete monopoly on permanent magnet production. To establish a new industry in Europe, the project aims to use AlNiCo and High Entropy Alloy (HEA) components produced by 3D printing. Additionally, they will develop recycling strategies for these magnets to enable material recovery.

The process overall aims to explore new material compositions, design optimal microstructures, develop powder bed fusion parameters, and build strategies. A key element is controlled grain alignment. The project will then move to pilot production and produce the permanent magnets. Afterward, they will assess the environmental impact and recycling options. The team will transition from lab to manufacturing, extensively using simulation software to achieve their goals. Ultimately, the aim is to produce 3D-printed magnets weighing over 1 kilogram.

Partners

In total, there are 16 partners from 10 countries. The overall coordinator is the Norwegian research institute Sintef, along with digital manufacturing framework Biog3D, Greek powder recycling company Conify, the FIAT R&D center (now part of car manufacturer Stellantis), and Nikon SLM Solutions. This is a significant win for SLM since numerous applications could emerge from this project. Missile components, small motors, radar components, and more could all be produced using their machines. Many of the parameters and build strategies would be either unique to their machines or at least optimized for them. This is a major win for SLM and a very important project. If it succeeds, thousands of parts could be produced relatively inexpensively with additive manufacturing that cannot be reliably produced today.

Magnets are ubiquitous. Especially in defense and space, the ability to manufacture them entirely within one’s home country or allied countries could be crucial in any future conflict. Additionally, making them with reduced mass or conformally could provide advantages. With the proliferation of electronic components and various types of motors, several significant trends are driving the development and growth of permanent magnets. I really hope this project succeeds, as it could open up a vast new range of applications for us.

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