(ORDO NEWS) — Rare earth elements are a key part of electronic and mechanical devices, but they are constantly in short supply. Now scientists have come up with a promising alternative.
The “cosmic magnet” that normally takes millions of years to form in meteorites can now be made in the lab in literally seconds.
Many of the electronic devices and mechanical components are based on rare earth elements. This is especially important for green technologies – high-performance magnets require these elements.
But unfortunately, although they are not actually rare in the earth’s crust, they are difficult to mine.
“Rare earth deposits exist elsewhere, but mining is very destructive: you have to extract a huge amount of material to get a small amount of rare earth elements,” said study lead researcher Professor Lindsey Greer.
So scientists are exploring ways to recycle rare earths from old batteries and electronics, recover them from new sources like sewage, and find more common minerals that could perform similar functions.
In a new study, the Cambridge researchers investigated a promising alternative called tetratenite.
This mineral is an alloy of iron and nickel, forming a complex crystal structure that gives it magnetic properties similar to those of rare earth magnets.
The advantage, of course, is that iron and nickel are much easier to find.
The problem is that tetratenite is hard to find – it’s mostly found in meteorite samples , where it’s thought to have taken millions of years to form.
Previous attempts to produce it artificially in the lab have shown some success, but the methods are not scalable.
Upon closer inspection of meteorite samples of tetratenite, the team found that phosphorus was present in the mixture, helping to speed up the arrangement of iron and nickel atoms into the stack structure.
So they mixed iron, nickel, and phosphorus together in specific amounts, and found that tetrathenite formed 15 orders of magnitude faster in seconds, in fact.
“The surprising thing was that no special processing was required: we just melted the alloy, poured it into a mold and got tetratenite,” Greer said.
“Previous opinion in the field was that you can’t get tetratenite unless you do something extreme, because otherwise you have to wait millions of years for it to form.
This result represents a complete change in how we think about this material.”
The team says this discovery could lead to a viable alternative to rare earth magnets, though more work will be needed to test whether tetratenite thus created will work in these magnets.
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