Project to create sustainable magnets wins $10K prize

By Mary Hoff

A project aimed at developing magnets that don’t require the use of rare earth elements captured the $10,000 top prize in a Dow Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge Award (SISCA) competition held Dec. 4 at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment in St. Paul.

  • The winning project, “Rare Earth–Free Permanent Magnets,” was presented by Md Al Mehedi, a doctoral student of chemical engineering and material science in the College of Science and Engineering. The project described a new process for making magnets out of iron and nitrogen that obviates the need to use rare earth elements that are integral to standard magnets used for applications such as motors and generators, but that depend upon extraction processes that are energy intensive, technologically challenging, environmentally hazardous and threatening to human health and agriculture.
  • The Dow Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge Award (SISCA) is a program of the Institute on the Environment and the Dow Chemical Company. SISCA recognizes and rewards students and universities for innovation and research that encourages and promotes sustainable solutions to the world’s most pressing social, economic and environmental problems. The competition is open to full-time graduate and professional students enrolled at all campuses of the University of Minnesota.
  • The objective of the challenge is to develop practical and innovative solutions that address global environmental challenges. It encourages action from students — action to reach out and understand how to apply their knowledge to solve important problems in the world. This means identifying and understanding a real problem. It means developing not only a solution but also a plan for implementing that solution.
  • The winning project was one of 12 submitted to the Dow SISCA challenge at the University of Minnesota, one of 17 colleges around the world participating in the competition.
  • Runner-up recipients Christoph Krumm and Katherine Vinter (chemical engineering, College of Science and Engineering) received $2,500 to pursue the application of a novel dehydration technique to improve the sustainability of production of industrial chemicals from biomass.
  • Judges were from Dow Chemical, 3M, Metropolitan Council Environmental Services and the University of Minnesota. The awards are financial scholarships to the students to allow them to further develop their ideas.
  • Other finalists were:

Dustin Johnson (mechanical engineering, College of Science and Engineering) – A Compact, Portable Compressed Air Power Supply for Human Assistive Devices

Daniel Nigon (mechanical engineering, College of Science and Engineering) – Reducing Fossil Fuel Use in Water and Space Heating: Thermotropic Materials for Low-Cost Solar Thermal Collectors

Georgiy V. Vozhdayev (microbial engineering, College of Biological Sciences) – Large Scale Cultivation of Phytoplankton via Novel Photo-Bioreactor Technology

Chao Zhang (mechanical engineering, College of Science and Engineering) – Novel Thermal Energy Storage Approach with Application to Solar Energy and Waste Heat Recovery

The University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment seeks lasting solutions to Earth’s biggest challenges through research, partnerships and leadership development. For more information on IonE, visit For more information on the Dow SISCA program, see