Researchers at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts have developed a magnetic material which they say is very strong and does not require rare earth materials.
Rare-earth magnets have relatively exceptional strength. However, they are expensive, and there could be impending supply issues associated with them.
“State-of-the-art electric motors and generators contain highly coercive magnets that are based on rare-earth elements, but we have developed a new material with similar properties without those exotic elements,” said coauthor Don Heiman, a physics professor in the College of Science.
The team of researchers, which included the undergraduates Tom Cardinal and Thomas Nummy, determined that the compound manganese gallium can be synthesized on a nano-scale to produce a strong magnetic field that rivals that of rare-earth magnets, which are considerably more expensive to process and mine.
The need to develop low-cost magnet materials has been growing with the demand for generators and motors (which includes many appliances). China decreased rare-earth material production by 40% in 2010. Some contend this was done to drive up their cost. China currently dominates the rare-earth industry.
“The government would be in a bind if it had to rely on China to produce hybrid cars and wind generators,” said Heinman.
Electric vehicles and wind turbines do not have to be made with rare-earth magnets (which are often called permanent magnets, by the way, due to the fact that they don’t have to be supplied with electricity), but they do have certain winning qualities. (It should be pointed out that all generators utilize the same basic concept of magnetism. The alternative to permanent magnet generators and motors is the induction type, which are also common.)
Heinman presented his team’s research in Scottsdale, Arizona at the 56th Annual Conference on Magnetism and Magnetic Materials. Representatives of Toyota, LG Electronics, and hard-drive manufacturers Seagate and Hitachi Global were said to be particularly interested in the findings. “It garnered a lot of interest,” Heiman said.
Computer hard drive motors, hybrid electric vehicles, and electric vehicle motors can all benefit from improved magnets, of course.
Heinman commended the contribution of the three students that conducted the research and noted that their work taught them how to approach scientific problems using new methods.
“The goal is to get students in the lab as soon as possible,” Heiman explained. “In class, students work on problems with specific answers, but when you enter the real world, it’s not like that.”
Research for this Northeastern University project was funded by a 3-year, $360,000-grant provided by the National Science Foundation.
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