University of Minnesota Alumni Association


A Positive Attraction

Niron Magnetics's "clean earth" technology hopes to solve our global need for magnets that don't damage the environment.

Front row, COO John Larson (seated), and U of M alumni employees of the company: Fan Zhang Ren. Back row: Sam Rahmani, Rich Greger, Xiaowei Zhang, Dustin Sprouse, Robert Brown, and Yiming Wu.
Rob Levine

As the world moves toward a future of electric vehicles and wind turbines, it will need to increase the supply of magnets that are used to power motors that convert electricity to motion. In fact, rare earth magnets—extremely strong magnets made from alloys of rare-earth elements, including neodymium—are a key component in many items, including computers, cordless power tools, and refrigerators.

When Jian-Ping Wang arrived at the U of M in 2002, he’d been dreaming about the possibilities of creating magnets from iron and nitrogen for over a decade. He and his student researchers spent the next six years quietly working on materials, mixing thousands of samples.

Unfortunately, relying on these rare earth elements is not sustainable. Not only are there not enough mines to support the rapid increase in demand, the supply chain for elements such as neodymium is currently concentrated mostly in China, which means it is vulnerable to geopolitical tensions. These rare elements are also difficult to extract, and the mining process used to produce them releases toxic chemicals into the environment and creates mountains of hazardous waste. 

Niron Magnetics, a Minneapolis company with deep roots at the University, is working to solve this dilemma with the world’s first commercial, permanent high-performance magnets that are manufactured without rare earth minerals.

“Our solution uses iron and nitrogen,” says John Larson (Ph.D. ’00), Niron’s chief operating officer. “Iron is easy to mine or recycle and nitrogen is readily available. So, the basic elements are environmentally friendly materials that are easy to find and [incorporate] into your manufacturing process.”

A typical passenger vehicle uses hundreds of magnets. Niron hopes to enable size and weight reduction in them without compromising power.
Image courtesy Niron Magnetics

Niron’s “clean earth” magnets are the breakthrough invention of Jian-Ping Wang, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. When Wang arrived at the University in 2002, he’d been dreaming about the possibilities of creating magnets from iron and nitrogen for over a decade. He and his U of M student researchers spent the next six years quietly working on materials, mixing thousands of samples. In 2010, an article in Science magazine announced that they’d succeeded. The material, Fe 16 N2, turned out to be 18 percent stronger than any magnetic compound on the market. And unlike previous attempts by other research teams, Wang and his colleagues were able to reliably reproduce the results.

At the time, Wang’s magnets were not permanent, meaning they lost their charge over time. He spent the next year figuring out a solution. In 2014, he founded Niron Magnetics, with support from the University and a Silicon Valley venture capital company. Larson was hired in 2017 after working as an engineer in the semiconductor industry.

Wang, who serves as the company’s chief scientific officer, in addition to his position at the U of M, actively mentored Larson. “Every week Jian-Ping and I would have lunch,” he remembers. “And many times, our lunches were tutorials about magnetic materials.” 

Vehicle diagram adapted from image courtesy Niron Magnetics

Since then, Niron has opened a pilot factory in Minneapolis and has been refining Wang’s work so that it can be scaled to mass production. “The material still needs to improve,” says Larson. He estimates the company needs to boost the qualities of the magnetic material another 20 percent before they can bring it to market.

The company currently has 35 employees, some of whom have moved from across the world to work at Niron. It also employs many U of M grads, which Wang says benefits both the company and the University. Larson agrees. “It’s a spectacular team and they’re very passionate about the sustainability, the environmental impact,” says Larson.

“We don’t expect that we’ll completely eliminate all rare earth magnets, but we think we’re a solution that fills that gap, and single-handedly solves many of our national goals around reducing carbon emissions, if we can successfully bring this material to market at scale,” he adds. “There’s just not many opportunities in life like this where you could have such a huge impact on the world.”

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