Cambridge researchers are working to recreate an outer space magnet on Earth.
If successful, the work could give the West renewable tech independence from China, while also securing a more planet-friendly material to help power electric vehicles and other tech.
The researchers call tetrataenite a “cosmic magnet” that could revolutionize how we power cleaner technology. Magnets are needed components for EVs, wind turbines, and other innovations that experts consider crucial to reducing air pollution.
Most of that tech currently uses magnets made with what are commonly called “rare earth elements.” They are scattered throughout the planet’s crust and are difficult to gather, requiring invasive and expensive mining.
China controls about 58% of rare earth mining and 92% of magnet production, as of 2020, according to a U.S. Energy Department guide to achieving “American Leadership” in the sector. The U.S. contributes about 15% of the global supply, according to the government.
“Between the environmental impacts, and the heavy reliance on China, there’s been an urgent search for alternative materials that do not require rare earths,” Cambridge professor Lindsay Greer said in a Cambridge report.
Tetrataenite, an iron-nickel alloy, could be the magic magnet that solves some of these problems. But, the material is formed during the course of millions of years on meteorites. And, we don’t yet have tractor beams and transporters to gather them.
Phosphorus, a common element, works with iron and nickel to create the right atomic movement to form a tetrataenite magnet without taking millions of years in outer space. The researchers said they successfully recreated tetrataenite in a few seconds by pouring the mixture into a mold, according to Cambridge.
The phosphorus breakthrough eliminates mass production problems with past work to recreate the material, including a 1960s project using “neutron irradiation.”
The technique developed by Cambridge researchers, with help from colleagues in Austria, is a lot simpler.
“We just melted the alloy, poured it into a mold, and we had tetrataenite,” Greer said in the university report.
The experts are now testing the material to see how it works as a high-performance magnet needed for most of the digital age tech that fills our lives.
As of last year, they were also looking to partner with magnet makers on the research. The goal is to perfect the process of making reliable, space-aged magnets at hyperspeed.
Experts said that their success so far has them reconsidering if it really does take millions of years for tetrataenite to form on meteorites.
“This result represents a total change in how we think about this material,” Greer said in the report.
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