CNN recently posted an important article on rare earth magnets and their critical and intriguing role in nanotech and cleantech, as well as defense ("The Race to Make the World's Strongest Magnet"). Rare earth magnet technology is also supported by the DOE ARPA-E program. One issue is source of supply for this critical technology, where most of the supply of the rare earth metals comes from China (97%).
One leader in the field, as noted in the article, is Professor George Hadjipanayis (University of Delaware). See, for example, his recently published patent application 2011/0057756 which includes use of nanocrystalline powders. Older patents include 5,411,608; 5,403,407; and 5,084,115. Technical reviews are linked here.
Rare earth metal magnets certainly are a leading example of the criticality of nanotech to cleantech and defense. Presumably, R&D in areas such as this are better situated to survive budget cutting. Partnership among diverse entities with government oversight and funding is also important, particularly with respect to defense and critical supply issues.