If the ultimate goal of electric vehicles is cleaner transportation in the future, there’s more at stake than just tailpipe emissions. You also have the minerals used to create EV batteries and electric motors, many of which are mined and refined in a less-than-green fashion – or are located in a country that’s not exactly friendly with the United States. Some of those challenges are exactly what General Motors hopes to overcome with a new partnership with a U.S. startup that seeks to make more “sustainable” magnets within electric motors.

GM recently announced a deal with Minneapolis-based Niron Magnetics to develop and scale what the latter company claims is the world’s “first and only permanent magnet with automotive-grade power that is entirely free from critical materials.” Both companies say the technology represents a way to make a key component for electric motors that replace the rare-earth minerals used in most magnets currently. 


via Niron Magnetics

“These rare earth minerals are difficult to obtain, and in addition to being expensive, are almost entirely produced overseas,” said Kai Daniels, Supervising Principal at GM Ventures, the automaker’s future-tech capital arm investing in Niron Magnetics. “Thus, permanent magnet design is a great opportunity for us to reduce our costs and environmental impact of our EV motors while also localising our EV supply chain in North America.”

Daniels added that the magnets under development are based on iron nitride, “which is an abundant, affordable and sustainable material which has great potential for commercial use a future EVs.” 

Jonathan Rowntree, CEO of Niron Magnetics, said the company has 60 employees but hopes to double that by this time next year. He and GM officials declined to specify the amount the automaker is investing in the startup but said that development will take place across both companies. 


via Niron Magnetics

“Permanent magnets are the unsung heroes and essential components of countless parts of your vehicle, including speakers, motors, pumps and compressors,” Rowntree said. “Where they have the greatest impact for GM is in the drivetrains of their future EVs.” 

Within electric motors, permanent magnets – so named because they generate a constant magnetic force – are a key component for turning electricity into mechanical energy. 

“This new round of funding will advance the commercialisation of Niron’s Iron Nitride-based Clean Earth Magnets, which are environmentally sustainable, globally manufacturable, and made from stable supply inputs. Further, Niron’s alternative to rare-earth magnets promises improved temperature stability compared to other options currently available on the market, which is critical for automotive use,” the company said in a news release. It has also attracted investment from Volvo Cars and Stellantis. 

But Rowntree said that today, roughly 90% of permanent magnet development is dependent on China, which alone is an issue for automakers trying to scale up their EV supply chains without relying on a country whose relations with the U.S. are frosty on a good day. Indeed, provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act mean that automakers’ tax credits will be heavily restricted if they depend on batteries, battery components and minerals from China – something that’s expected to become especially contentious in the next few months. Moreover, Rowntree said that Niron Magnetics’ approach “allows for manufacturing in the US and elsewhere globally, by using abundant and sustainable raw materials, with no need for new rare earth mines.”

While this may not be the most exciting announcement GM has ever made, it’s some proof that the automaker is far from done with electric vehicle development – and may even feel timed to counter recent negative headlines about its EV growth. 

The past few quarters have not been great for GM’s EV dreams, as it has continually struggled to put its Ultium-platform electric cars on the road at any meaningful scale. Recently, it has announced delays to future battery plants (also citing costs from the United Auto Workers’ strikes), abandonment of a joint venture with Honda to build affordable EVs, and walking away from a goal to build 400,000 EVs in North America by mid-2024.

In a press briefing this week, GM officials seemed adamant that its future was indeed electric, and the investment into Niron Magnetics seemed poised to drive that point home. 

“At GM, we believe in an all-electric, zero-emissions future and we want to see everyone driving an EV,” Daniels said. “In order to make EVs more accessible, it's critical we provide an EV portfolio that's broad to meet everyone's needs.” 

At the same time, GM and Niron Magnetics officials repeatedly declined to say when these “clean earth magnets” may make their way to future GM EVs – many of which have seen significant delays in production. 

“GM’s commitment to our EV strategy is as strong as ever, and we're excited about this investment to continue down that path,” Daniels said.

Contact the author: patrick.george@insideevs.com