Laura Lewis is leading a team of North­eastern researchers devel­oping a super-​​strong mag­netic mate­rial that has the poten­tial to rev­o­lu­tionize the man­u­fac­turing, trans­porta­tion and clean-​​energy industries. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

Super-​​strong mag­nets found in elec­tronic devices such as com­puters and mobile phones play a cru­cial role in modern life, but the rare earth ele­ments that power these mag­nets have fallen into short supply.

Last year, China, which has cor­nered the market on the supply of the rare earth ele­ments, pur­posely reduced pro­duc­tion by 40 per­cent to drive up prices throughout the rest of the world.

But North­eastern Uni­ver­sity researchers are leading a project to solve the problem. Backed by a $3.5 mil­lion grant from the Depart­ment of Energy (DOE), prin­cipal inves­ti­gator Laura Lewis, the Cabot Pro­fessor of chem­ical engi­neering in the Col­lege of Engi­neering, Vince Harris, the W.L. Smith Chair Pro­fessor of elec­trical and com­puter engi­neering, and col­leagues from five other insti­tu­tions, including Gen­eral Motors Research and Devel­op­ment, will work together to engi­neer new mag­netic mate­rials that do not uti­lize rare earth elements.

Lewis said a new mate­rial has the poten­tial to rev­o­lu­tionize the man­u­fac­turing, trans­porta­tion and clean-​​energy indus­tries. “We’re working to manip­u­late mate­rial struc­tures at the atomic level to develop supe­rior mag­netic prop­er­ties,” she explained.

The research team will work to design a new mate­rial through the Rare Earth Alter­na­tives in Crit­ical Tech­nolo­gies for Energy (REACT) Pro­gram. The DOE Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy ini­tia­tive cre­ated the pro­gram to reduce the reliance on rare earth ele­ments, which, Lewis said, “happen to be extremely impor­tant to an enor­mous number of tech­nolo­gies crit­ical to the United States.”

There are plans to revive long-​​dormant rare earth mines both in the U.S. and abroad, but the work by North­eastern researchers and their col­lab­o­ra­tors will facil­i­tate the cre­ation of envi­ron­men­tally friendly alter­na­tives with a secure, domestic supply chain.

China cur­rently mines and pro­duces more than 95 per­cent of the rare earth metals used world­wide. “China has con­cluded that it needs to retain its rare earth supply and pro­duc­tion to meet its own growing energy needs,” Lewis said.

China’s stance prompted the U.S. fed­eral gov­ern­ment to allo­cate sig­nif­i­cant funding to develop the mag­nets without Chi­nese mate­rials. One alter­na­tive mate­rial cur­rently under review is cobalt car­bide, which Harris and his col­leagues at Northeastern’s Center for Microwave Mag­netic Mate­rials and Inte­grated Cir­cuits used to pro­duce the world’s fourth most pow­erful magnet, which does not rely on rare earth metals.

Visit IRis, Northeastern’s archive of dig­ital schol­ar­ship, pub­lishing and preser­va­tion for work by Laura Lewis and Vince Harris