The University of Massachusetts Amherst
University of Massachusetts Amherst

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Research Team Attempts to Synthesize Industrial Supermagnets

Professor Joseph Goldstein of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is part of a research team on a fast-track Department of Energy (DOE) program to develop bulk quantities of commercially viable, environmentally sound supermagnets, which can be used in electric vehicles, wind-turbine generators, and many other machines. The researchers are attempting to synthesize and produce the kind of magnetic, iron-nickel, crystal structure that until now has been found only in meteorites, taking billions of years to develop in space.

The ultimate goal of the project, funded by an 18-month, $3.3-million DOE grant, is to demonstrate that supermagnets replicating the iron-nickel structure of magnetic material in meteorites can by fabricated on earth on an industrial scale.

Goldstein notes that the project is “very high-risk but very high-payoff.” That’s because the total market for permanent supermagnets is projected to exceed $20 billion by 2020. 

The Principal Investigator for the project is Professor Laura Lewis of Northeastern University. The project is a collaborative effort among four universities (Northeastern University, Columbia University, University of Massachusetts Amherst, and University of Nebraska Lincoln) and two industrial partners (General Motors R&D and Arnold Magnetics Technologies). The researchers are acknowledged experts in the fields of magnetism, materials, and meteorites.

“The strongest magnets available worldwide are made with rare earth elements,” explains Goldstein. “Several of these in combination with iron make extremely strong magnets. The strongest available. The basic problem is that the Chinese own 95 percent of the mines that produce rare earth minerals. So we need to create these strong magnets in another way.”

That’s where this project, entitled “Iron-Nickel-Based Supermagnets,” enters the picture. The researchers plan to realign the crystalline structure of inexpensive iron-nickel minerals found abundantly on earth so that the new structure, known as tetrataenite, has super-magnetic properties. Tetrataenite material, to date, has been found only in meteorites.

This area is Goldstein’s bailiwick, which is why he was recruited for Lewis’s research team. He is a world-renowned expert on meteorites and he has been studying tetrataenite in meteorites for decades. The UMass Amherst share of the DOE grant is approximately $200,000.

“So our task is to reorder the atoms in the plentiful iron-nickel we have on earth, realigning the layers of iron and nickel in a very specific way to make it magnetic,” says Goldstein. “But to get that to happen is difficult.”

The only model in nature is that of meteorites, which develop iron-nickel, magnetic tetrataenite at temperatures below 300 Centigrade for billions of years. By contrast, the research team must obtain the same results in months. That’s the challenge.

“At UMass, our particular task is to look at the meteorites themselves,” Goldstein notes, “try to learn composition ranges, get some ideas about how they formed, and do some magnetic measurements on them in the micro-scale, which has never been done.”

Goldstein has been characterizing this magnetic, iron-nickel meteorite mineral using electron microscopes and other techniques and supplying some of that material to the researchers at Northeastern, who are measuring the magnetic properties.

“What I found fascinating is that for years I’ve been working on meteorites, which have a wealth of scientific interest but were thought to have no commercial value at all,” says Goldstein. “And now we’re finding something of commercial interest. The meteorites are informing us how to go about this industrial process.”

The research is funded through the DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy (ARPA-E) program, which has funded 14 promising projects focusing on “Rare Earth Alternatives in Critical Technologies.” (October 2012)