- We recently spoke about the Challenge with Dr. Ping Liu, a Program Director at the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). Thank you for joining us. Could you start off by telling us a bit more about the REACT program and the origin of this Challenge?
It’s a pleasure to be speaking with you. ARPA-E’s REACT program, which stands for "Rare Earth Alternatives in Critical Technologies,” is developing cost-effective alternatives to rare earth materials. These materials are elements with unique magnetic properties that are the high-performance magnets required for electric vehicle (EV) motors, wind generators, and many of the technologies that we rely on every day, such as cell phones and laptop computers. The REACT projects that comprise the program seek to identify low-cost and abundant replacements for rare earth magnets while encouraging existing technologies to use them more efficiently. These alternatives will facilitate the widespread use of EVs and wind power by drastically reducing, or eliminating, the amount of costly rare earth materials.
ARPA-E focuses on this critical need for both security and economic purposes. Currently, most known locations of rare earth deposits are outside the U.S., meaning our nation has a systematic problem accessing the known supply. Furthermore, as there is a growing global shortage of rare earth materials and an increasing demand, the cost of these materials has increased dramatically since 2010. Given this context, ARPA-E has prioritized funding for exploring early-stage alternative technologies that reduce or eliminate the need for rare earths by developing substitutes suitable for two key areas: EV motors and wind generators.
While ARPA-E’s current REACT performers are making great strides in this arena, a problem that continues to challenge this scientific community is creation of a magnet that mixes hard and soft magnetic materials while maintaining internal, nanoscale order. A magnet with nanoscale order and the desired ordering of hard and soft magnetic phases should exhibit high remenance and coercivity, making it high performing, and thus a viable alternative to rare earth magnets.
ARPA-E funds some of the most cutting-edge and well-equipped experts in their respective fields and they are producing innovative magnetic materials. However, when faced with an issue that challenges many of its project teams—tackling the issue of nanoscale order in macroscopic magnets—the Agency decided to solicit ideas from a new source of problem-solvers to try and source never-before-seen ideas and answers to the question at-hand.
- What are your key objectives for this challenge?
This Challenge is focused on finding new and alternative methods for creating nanoscale order in macroscopic, near-fully dense materials. In this context, macroscopic refers to a volume of 1 cm3 or larger, ideally in a cubic form factor with no dimension smaller than 0.25 cm. Nanoscale, on the other hand, refers to a material having features in at least one dimension of approximately 5 nm.
Besides defining key terms, this Challenge’s language was kept intentionally general to allow for solutions that could resolve not only scientific problems related to ARPA-E’s REACT goals, but also to problems faced by many disciplines. If a materials-agnostic (i.e. generalizable across materials) solution is found, which avoids sophisticated linker chemistries applicable to single materials, it could be applied to many material classes and , perhaps, enable many scientific and engineering endeavors, such as solid-state batteries. The ideal solution would also ensure that the macroscopic materials demonstrate a well-defined nanoscale order, meaning a uniform size, shape, and orientation.
- What was your primary motivation for crowdsourcing this Challenge to InnoCentive’s Solvers (as opposed to using more “traditional” means to solicit ideas and solutions)?
To fulfill its mission of tackling the nation’s most pressing energy issues, ARPA-E focuses on and facilitates the collaboration of scientific experts who come from private companies, national labs, and universities. While this diversity in expertise fosters innovation and progress, we also acknowledge that those outside a field can often approach challenges with a fresh set of eyes. In posting this Challenge, ARPA-E decided to push itself further and solicit fresh perspectives that could prove invaluable when solving a classic problem in materials science and nanotechnology. This Challenge represents another ARPA-E attempt to apply outside-the-box approaches to existing issues.
- What are some of the key attributes you’d like to see in a winning solution?
We’re looking for a solution to make near fully dense macroscopic materials with nanoscale order. Porosity is not desirable and the presence of contaminants (such as surfactants from nanoparticle production or large amounts of binding agents) is also not desirable.
For this Challenge to be a true success, the winning method should not only be materials-agnostic as mentioned before, but also able to control key properties. This control would ideally include magnetization, thermal conductivity and anisotropy of those properties.
- Thank you for your time, Dr. Liu. Do you have any final advice or guidance for our Solvers as they tackle this Challenge?
Solvers should really focus on thinking broadly and should not shy from focusing on a single aspect of the Challenge instead of the entire problem. If Solvers have substantive ideas on one part of the Challenge, for example what material should be used and why or how to maintain properties at elevated temperatures, they should consider participating. We are looking for anything that adds value and moves us closer to our ultimate goal. ARPA-E prides itself on collaboration and creativity, meaning we are always looking to gather many valuable ideas that can come together to make a whole. A well-written Solution that answers one portion of this Challenge has as good a chance at winning the prize than an overly-ambitious Solution that inadequately addresses all aspects of the problem.
Solvers should also note that we are absolutely not looking for literature reviews or theoretical statements. Instead, we would like to see an innovative and detailed description of the materials and process that can meet the technical requirements listed. Finally, I encourage Solvers to be creative—we don’t want ideas we could find in the literature. We want thoughtful, inventive ideas that approach this problem from unexpected angles.