General Motors is revisiting a business it once pioneered but abandoned nearly 30 years ago as it pushed to streamline its operations to satisfy Wall Street investors’ demands for higher returns.
GM and Stellantis are joining Volvo Cars and other stakeholders in investing $33 million in Niron Magnetics, a start-up that is developing a high-tech magnet that can be used as the heart of an electric vehicle without using scarce rare-earth minerals.
Minneapolis-based Niron’s Clean Earth Magnet technology is based on iron nitride, an abundant and affordable material with significant potential for commercial use in future EVs.
The existing supply chain for making magnets is largely concentrated in China. Niron’s magnet can be made with elements found in the U.S.
With the new investments from GM Ventures and Stellantis Ventures, and previous funding from the Volvo Cars Tech Fund, Niron is now backed by three leading automakers.
This commitment demonstrates Clean Earth Magnet technology’s potential to meet the automotive industry’s need to diversify and secure its supply chain with a viable alternative to rare-earth magnets, Niron says in a statement acknowledging the new investments.
“We were drawn to invest in Niron by the impressive sustainability benefits that its Clean Earth Magnet technology offers for vehicles and the inherent scalability of their solution,” says Adam Bazih, managing partner at Stellantis Ventures.
“Making powerful magnets from plentiful commodity materials decouples new production from rare-earth mine development and lowers overall environmental impact, which directly aligns with Stellantis’ commitment to reach carbon net zero by 2038,” Bazih adds.
GM Ventures says the investment will support the scaling of Niron’s manufacturing and commercialization of its sustainable magnets. Niron becomes one of more than 30 companies in GM Ventures’ portfolio.
The permanent magnets in the rotors of EV motors typically are made from rare-earth minerals such as terbium, dysprosium, praseodymium and neodymium, which are expensive and currently processed almost entirely overseas, according to investors. The minerals improve EV motors’ energy efficiency.
“We believe Niron’s unique technology can play a key role in reducing rare-earth minerals from EV motors and help us further scale our North American-based supply chain for EVs,” says Anirvan Coomer, president of GM Ventures. “Our path to an all-electric future will be enabled not only by our own research and development efforts but also by investing in next-generation technology from startups and established companies outside our four walls.”
For GM, the investment in Niron reverses a decision on rare-earth magnet technology made nearly 30 years ago when the automaker sold its interests – and patents – belonging to its old Magnequench unit to Chinese investors.
“During Roger Smith’s tenure as GM’s chairman, high technology was the order of the day, and the Magnequench magnet operation in Anderson, IN, was supposed to revolutionize the corporation’s small-motor business,” WardsAuto reported in 1995.
“Now, GM appears ready to sell the business to Beijing’s San Huan Group Inc. for $70 million. Magnequench would be the last of a list of 14 GM components businesses targeted for divestiture,” Wards noted then.
Niron Magnetics was spun out of a University of Minnesota research lab in 2013. The university and the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, previous investors in the company, are making new investments in the latest round of financing alongside the venture funds of GM, Stellantis and Volvo Cars.
“EV motors are a key element of our Ultium platform,” GM says. Niron’s magnets “present a great opportunity to reduce cost and environmental impact compared to traditional magnet materials, while localizing our EV supply chain in North America.”