Magnets may replace gold in Fort Knox, even though they are all around us and make modern life possible and livable. Stop reading a second and look around. Without even trying, at least ten items can be spotted that have magnets in them. With a little thought, five, or even ten more might be found.
From cute little magnetic buttons on the Frigidaire holding up the kids’ school drawings, to the radio on the counter, to the clock on the way, magnets have invaded modern life. No matter where, one finds these chunks of metal that make their own magnetic field; they’re at the soul of much of modern technology.
Smart phones, headphones and other forms of magnets give ease and convenience in modern life. The world today hums on energy: cars, computers, satellites and transportation. All of these need magnets, which have not reached gold prices yet.
There’s a crisis on the horizon. There’s been an unprecedented and unforeseen demand for magnets for a couple years, and the demand is increasing. The problem is no one has a clue from where those needed magnets will be coming.
Making a quality magnet is a challenge. Two centuries ago, scientists who developed the theory of electromagnetism taught that magnetic fields show up as electrical charges are moving around. That primitive understanding was just enough to put giant chunks of iron, nature’s most apparent magnetic substance, at the center of electrical machinery like motors and generators. In those devices, they held energy in reserve and turned mechanical work into electrical currents.
Understanding precisely how an enduring metal such as iron gets and keeps the ability to generate magnet fields had to wait until scientists of the 20th century came along. Basically, it all boils down to the action of atomic electrons. Quantum theories and the ideas of Einstein indicate how each one can behave like a simple bar magnet. Best remembered from games in childhood and studies in elementary school, the basic magnets had poles, north and south.
For decades, magnets, as big chucks of iron or small bars, were good enough for industry and power generation. Now society operates in a micro world where slimmer, leaner and more efficient magnets are needed. When transistor radios started becoming popular in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the crude iron magnets that everyone was familiar with just wouldn’t work. So new magnets, and a new way to make them, had to be found.
The best material found currently to make magnets is the very scarce element neodymium. Add a little iron and a dash of boron and it creates Neo magnets. A Neo magnet, no bigger than a finger tip, can create a magnetic field several thousand times stronger than the iron core at the center of the earth. There were some problems, though.
At room temperature, Neo magnets have a weakness that leaves them demagnetized and powerless. However, scientists discovered that if they tinkered with the ingredients a little at the atomic level they could fix the problem. Replace some of the neodymium atoms with some of its heavier cousin, dysprosium. Now the scene was set for a revolution.
Anywhere that magnets were needed, in stepped Neo. For everything from power steering in cars to the motors that keep CDs and DVDs spinning. Even the fragile diaphragm that changes electrical pulses to audible sound rely on Neo magnets. By 2010, the return on investment in Neo magnets blasted past any other metal based magnet. Neo was taking over.
That’s where the real problems began. Neo was just too good. Its ubiquitous presence drove up demand to the point that its availability was becoming a problem.
“When Neo was invented, the trouble was, in a sense, just it was too good,” says William McCallum, a magnetics researcher at Iowa State University. “It drove up demand to the extent that the availability of rare earths was a problem.”
Rare earths are called rare for a reason; they’re hard to find. Over the past 15 years, almost all of the world’s supply came from the mines deep in China. China is developing its own economic and consumer items which need, as guessed, magnets. This means that magnets for American technology can replace the gold in Fort Knox.
To keep as much of the rare earth inside the country, China added a pretty good size export tariff. The tariff could not have come at a worse moment; the global demand for the mineral was surging at an all time high.
To blame the culprit for this surge on personal consumer products would be easy, but misplaced. A personal computer has approximately 50 grams of magnets inside. With millions of consumer devices in use that adds up, but it is nowhere close to the quantities of magnets being consumed by environmentally friendly technology.
Wind turbines, as well as electric cars and bicycles, all use magnets which need to be both powerful and light. Only Neo magnets are able to provide both. There’s another problem. Remember the Chinese? They are the only ones that have access to dysprosium, that earth element without which Neo magnets are useless.
Recognizing the need for “super magnets,” the US Department of Energy is behind a drive to develop them quickly. Fourteen separate teams of scientists and researchers have received a total of $22 million to develop magnets that use less of the rare earth elements — or better yet, none at all.
Great ideas are being tested and discarded almost monthly. Trying to combine iron, cobalt and nickel hasn’t worked. Neither has the mixing of graphite, diamond and iron been an answer. There are plenty of great minds working on the challenges, but the other thing everyone is running short of is time.
“Oh my god, very small,” says Laura Lewis when asked about the chances for success. Lewis, who studies and develops new magnetic materials at Northeastern University in Boston, feels that we should keep our fingers crossed for a miracle. “If we note even a hint that we can make it, it is going to be huge.”
Society can hope they do make it, because without it, magnets may be rarer than gold in Fort Knox.
By Jerry Nelson
How Stuff Works
How Magnets Work