Japanese inventor awarded 2022 QEPrize

Article by Amanda Jasi

Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering

MASATO Sagawa has won the 2022 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering (QEPrize) for his work on the discovery, development, and commercialisation of the world’s most powerful permanent magnet, contributing to enabling cleaner, energy-saving technologies.

The QEPrize is an annual £500,000 (US$677,791) prize to celebrate the critical role that engineering plays in global society and promote excellence in the field.

Sagawa, who has degrees in electrical engineering and a doctorate in materials engineering, was recognised for his pioneering development of the sintered neodymium-iron-boron (Nd-Fe-B) magnet, a sintered rare-earth permanent magnet. His work led to a new magnet for mass market that almost doubled the performance of the previous best, and successfully turned the Nd-Fe-B magnet into a viable industrial material with wide applications.

He discovered Nd-Fe-B magnets in 1982. His innovation replaced scarce and expensive cobalt and samarium (in samarium-cobalt magnets discovered in the 1960s) with more abundant and cheaper iron and neodymium. He also introduced boron to improve magnetic properties – the first step in delivering high performance to a mass market.

Sagawa led research and development in the 1980s and early 1990s to successfully overcome issues of sudden reduction in magnetic coercivity at high temperatures, most notably by adding the rare-earth element dysprosium to improve heat resistance. Coercivity is a measure of a magnet’s resistance to demagnetisation. This addition led to the development of high-volume manufacturing techniques which successfully commercialised the innovation.

For even wider application, Sagawa continued to develop novel techniques for reducing the amount of dysprosium, or to eliminate use to help preserve natural resources. Though he has retired, Sagawa continues to consult Daido Steel. The specialty steel manufacturer is putting his latest technology, which improves magnetic energy density and reduces the use of dysprosium, into industrial production.  

Nd-Fe-B magnets have a significant advantage in high-efficiency and high-torque applications, such as motors and generators for electric vehicles (EVs) and wind power generation. This type of permanent magnet is essential in the value chain of EVs and hybrid EVs, demonstrating a prolific impact on the entire economy. More generally, the magnets are useful where small, powerful magnets are required, including in robots, automation systems, and domestic appliances.

Sagawa said: “Receiving the [QEPrize] is a special moment for me, as this prestigious prize encapsulates what engineering is all about. The purpose of engineering is to benefit humankind, and this award inspires engineers to keep working towards their goals. Engineering is essential to solving today’s most pressing issues, and this includes tackling climate change.

“While neodymium magnets have a wide range of applications, one of the most important is its use for climate economy products, such as electric vehicles and wind turbines. I am therefore honoured to be part of the engineering profession’s contribution towards the fight against climate change, and equally as honoured to receive this unique prize.”

Raghunath Anant Mashelkar, QEPrize judge and former IChemE President, said: “The entire world is looking at a green future with green energy. Electric vehicles are fundamental, and they must use electric motors – 90% of the electric motors use these neodymium-iron-boron magnets. When you look at our challenges on climate change, we really need breakthroughs, like this innovation, because we don't have time to waste.”

Following the announcement of the award, Sagawa will be formally honoured at a presentation ceremony later this year. In addition to the £500,000 award, he will receive a unique trophy. The award amount was lowered from £1m as it is now awarded annually, as opposed to biennially, as previously. The decision was made to move an annual prize cycle to reflect the rapid pace of engineering innovation.

Sagawa has previously received various honours, including the 2012 Japan Prize for “developing the world’s highest performing Nd-Fe-B type permanent magnet and contributing to energy conservation.”

Article by Amanda Jasi

Staff reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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