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Getting a Charge: Pitt engineers and Alcoa researcher receive NSF grant to develop sustainably-produced magnets for electric generation

PITTSBURGH (June 19, 2014) … A more energy-efficient and less time-consuming method to produce permanent magnets for power generation in machines from electric cars to windmills is the potential of a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to engineering researchers at the University of Pittsburgh's Swanson School of Engineering and Alcoa Technical Center in New Kensington, Pa.

The proposal, "Manufacturing of Nanostructure-Enhanced Mn-Al-base Materials via Modulated Machining and Thermomechanical Consolidation for High-Performance Magnets" was awarded a $299,998 NSF Grant Opportunity for Academic Liaison with Industry (GOALI) award effective May 1, 2014 to April 30, 2017. Lead by the Swanson School's Jörg M.K. Wiezorek, PhD , professor of mechanical engineering and materials science, with co-PIs M. Ravi Shankar, PhD , associate professor and Whiteford Faculty Fellow of industrial engineering at Pitt, and Hasso Weiland, PhD, technical fellow at the Alcoa Technical Center. The interdisciplinary academia-industry team will use a novel machining-based process combined with low-temperature consolidation to generate dense bulk ferromagnetic aggregates, or permanent magnets, for high-performance applications. The grant will also support graduate student fellowships in the lab.

"Current methods of producing permanent magnets are expensive and energy-intensive, requiring imported rare-earth metals and high-temperatures," Dr. Wiezorek explained. "By using a more affordable and less expensive magnesium aluminum alloy we can reduce a six-step manufacturing process into two stages and more efficiently and affordably produce permanent magnets for use in electro-generation."

According to Dr. Wiezorek, the research will explore the effective manufacture of rare-earth-metal-free magnetic materials, which are considered critical to technologies used in the conversion between mechanical work and electrical power, as well as in power transmission and distribution. The improved manufacture of permanent magnet materials based on abundant ingredients can positively impact the development of sustainable energy technologies from turbine power generation to electric vehicle battery charging.

Dr. Wiezorek explained that the machining-based process will deliver high-purity manganese-aluminum alloy based micro-particulates with an internal ultrafine-grained structure at the nanoscale level. To determine the most effect process-structure-property relationships for the magnets, the team will utilize physics-based numerical models with magnetic and mechanical property measurements, X-ray diffraction and electron microscopy experiments. Additionally, the researchers' innovative machining-based manufacturing is adaptable to a range of alloy systems and has the potential to advance the field of powder-particulate based manufacturing of functional and structural material in general.

About Jörg Wiezorek
Dr. Wiezorek's research group studies advanced materials and materials processing using and developing methods for the quantitative characterization by electron, ion and X-ray beam methods and other modern micro-characterization techniques. Combining experiments and appropriate computer simulations with the principles and practice of physical metallurgy and metal physics leads to the discovery of novel materials, materials behaviors and explanations of their properties, with an emphasis on intermetallic and metallic systems. Recent research thrusts include: (1) Determination of the electron density and nature of bonding in transitional metal based materials including intermetallics by quantitative electron diffraction and validation of density functional theory calculations; (2) Surface modification of structural alloys for enhanced performance by severe plastic deformation and grain-boundary-engineering; (3) In-situ studies of rapid irreversible transients, e.g. solidification, in pulsed laser processed metals and alloys using Ultrafast (nanosecond) TEM imaging and diffraction.

Dr. Wiezorek joined the Swanson School of Engineering in the fall of 1998 and was promoted to Full Professor in 2014. He received a Ph.D. in Materials Science and Metallurgy from the University of Cambridge, UK (1994) and obtained a Physics degree from the University of Münster, Germany (1991). He conducted high-temperature materials research using advanced transmission electron microscopy at The Ohio State University prior to his faculty appointment.

About M. Ravi Shankar
Dr. Shankar's primary research interests include synthesis and thermo-mechanical characterization of nanomaterials for structural and biomedical applications, synthesis and characterization of multifunctional polymers and design, modeling of advanced manufacturing processes. Dr. Shankar is an Associate Professor in the Swanson School's Department of Industrial Engineering and Whiteford faculty fellow. He received his PhD in industrial engineering from Purdue University. He received his BTech in mechanical engineering from Indian Institute of Technology - Madras.

About Hasso Weiland

Dr. Weiland has 25 years of industrial R&D experience with Alcoa Inc., where he is a technical fellow in the group Breakthrough Technologies at the Alcoa Technical Center in New Kensington, Pa. His research foci include recrystallization of aluminum alloys, mesoscale plasticity, phase transformations, alloy design and microstructure characterization. He also serves as an Adjunct Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at The Pennsylvania State University's Department of Materials Science and Engineering. He is a graduate of the Technische Universität Clausthal, Clausthal-Zellerfeld, Germany, with an MS degree in Physics (1983), PhD degree in Physical Metallurgy (1989) and completing his Habilitation Award (1998).