Perhaps the least photogenic of the six recent projects which received US Department of Energy ARPA-E funding is also the most timely. GE Labs is working on the development of next-generation permanent magnets that include lower amounts of rare-earth elements. Recent reports have indicated that the Chinese government may cut off the export of rare earth materials as part of a trade dispute, or as a political move. The current dispute between China and Japan is one aspect of this, but there are concerns that a similar embargo could be imposed in other areas. The development of new magnets could lead to more efficiency in a range of devices, as well as reduced reliance on "globally critical rare-earth minerals."
Permanent magnets are an important part of many electrical and electronic components used throughout contemporary life. From earbud headphones to hard disk drives to hybrid and electric vehicle motors to the generators in wind turbines, permanent magnets are a part of the technology that makes all of these work. China presently produces about 90 percent of rare earth oxides.
There is concern that rare-earth metals shortage could slow green innovation. New permanent magnets will not be, in and of themselves, a transforming technology, but developments could lead to improvements including lighter electric motors (leading to more efficient hybrid and electric vehicles), lighter generator equipment (leading to more powerful wind turbines and other power production systems), and increased availability of a range of other products.
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