Sunday, March 13, 2011

The race to make the world's strongest magnet
By John D. Sutter, CNN
March 9, 2011 2:41 p.m. EST 

(CNN) -- George Hadjipanayis' assistant came to him with perplexing news: Some incredibly strong magnetic field had caused their lab instruments to go haywire.
"You're out of your mind," Hadjipanayis recalls telling him in the early 1980s. "You have something wrong; go back" and try the experiment again.

Nothing was wrong, though, and Hadjipanayis soon realized that his team accidentally had created what was then, and continues to be, the world's strongest magnet -- made of a strange and little understood "rare earth" element called neodymium. That magnet would help revolutionize technology, powering wind turbine motors and giving juice to electric cars.
But the luck wouldn't last.

Accessible supplies of neodymium and 16 other rare earth elements -- which occupy those two orphaned rows at the bottom of the periodic table -- are running short. China, which controls supplies of 97% of these materials, doesn't like sharing them with the West. And the only U.S. mine for rare earth elements went out of production after a radioactive waste accident in the 1990s.

Throw in the fact that rare earth elements are important to all kinds of technologies -- they're the reason smartphones vibrate, why TVs have vivid reds and greens, and how computer hard drives are able to etch data -- and you've got a recipe that scares many technologists and researchers.

What would happen to our technological landscape without these rare earths?

Hadjipanayis, chairman of physics at the University of Delaware, and researchers from two other institutions, the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory in Iowa and GE Global Research in upstate New York, are preparing for that day.

They're in a race to make an even stronger magnet than before -- an essential component in green technologies, which use magnets to transfer electrical energy into motion. And they're trying to do it by using as little neodymium as possible, since that element is getting harder to come by.

For Hadjipanayis, this is a professional as well as personal struggle. He's trying to recreate the accidental success he had with magnets in the 1980s.

"I have pressure," he said. "Look, this is not easy. I mean, you need also a little bit of luck. We have the concept here, but there are many, many obstacles that we need to resolve before we succeed."

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