Researchers Discover Way to Make Magnets Without Rare Earth Metals
Researchers Discover Way to Make Magnets Without Rare Earth Metals

By Naveen Athrappully

Scientists from the University of Cambridge and their Austrian colleagues have discovered a novel method of making magnets without the use of rare earth metals, an innovation that could offer a possibility for Western countries to veer away from overly depending on China for the tech-critical materials.

Researchers found a way to produce tetrataenite, an alloy of iron and nickel, which can replace magnets made from rare earths. Tetrataenite usually forms naturally in meteorites. When meteorites cool down, the nickel and iron atoms order themselves in a specific structure, eventually ending up as a material that has properties almost similar to that of magnets made of rare earth elements. This is a process that takes millions of years.

However, the research team found a way to replicate the process in a short period of time while studying the properties of nickel-iron alloys containing small quantities of phosphorus.

By mixing nickel, iron, and phosphors in specific quantities, the formation of tetrataenite was massively sped up to the extent that the material could be formed in just a few seconds.

Rare earth magnets are critical in modern technology devices and used in MRI scanners, wind turbine generators, computer hard disks, traction motors, electric cars, and so on.

The researchers hope that they will be able to work with major magnet manufacturers on using tetrataenites as high-performance magnets.

“Rare earth deposits exist elsewhere, but the mining operations are highly disruptive. You have to extract a huge amount of material to get a small volume of rare earths,” said Lindsay Greer, who led the research, according to Phys.Org.

“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.”

Chinese Dominance

The development of tetrataenite magnets is crucial to ending the reliance on China to produce rare earth magnets. The country alone accounts for more than 80 percent of the global supply of rare earths, giving it massive leverage in the sector.

While speaking to Epoch TV’s “China Insider” in July, Luisa Moreno, president of Defense Metals, a Vancouver-based mineral exploration company, warned that if China were to stop the export of rare earths to the United States, the American military will face a crisis.

“It’s important for governments in Canada, the United States, Europe, and others to support junior mining companies so that they can develop their projects and support the development of supply chains,” she said.

“Because if that does not happen together with the capital markets, we might end up in severe scarcity outside China for these elements.”

China’s leaders have considered limiting the sale of particular rare earths used in American fighter jets, such as the F-35, and other advanced weaponry.

The United States is taking steps to plug in such vulnerabilities, and the Pentagon has awarded contracts for developing a rare earths refinery in the country. The facility, which is being set up in Texas, is expected to begin operations by 2025.

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