Since their relatively recent appearance on the commercial scene, rare-earth magnets have made quite a splash in the public imagination. The amount of magnetic energy packed into these tiny, shiny objects has led to technological leaps that weren’t possible before they came along, like the vibration motors in cell phones, or the tiny speakers in earbuds and hearing aids. And that’s not to mention the motors in electric vehicles and the generators in wind turbines, along with countless medical, military, and scientific uses.
These advances come at a cost, though, as the rare earth elements needed to make them are getting harder to come by. It’s not that rare earth elements like neodymium are all that rare geologically; rather, deposits are unevenly distributed, making it easy for the metals to become pawns in a neverending geopolitical chess game. What’s more, extracting them from their ores is a tricky business in an era of increased sensitivity to environmental considerations.
Luckily, there’s more than one way to make a magnet, and it may soon be possible to build permanent magnets as strong as neodymium magnets, but without any rare earth metals. In fact, the only thing needed to make them is iron and nitrogen, plus an understanding of crystal structure and some engineering ingenuity.
Continue reading “Iron Nitrides: Powerful Magnets Without The Rare Earth Elements”