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Scientists Turn Non-Magnetic Metals Into Magnetic Metals in Groundbreaking Research

'Future technologies, such as quantum computers, will require a new breed of magnets with additional properties to increase storage and processing capabilities.' 
(Image: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain)
'Future technologies, such as quantum computers, will require a new breed of magnets with additional properties to increase storage and processing capabilities.' (Image: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain)

There are only three truly magnetic metals at room temperature, those being nickel, cobalt, and iron, out of the 91 metals known to exist. Because of this, we have had to heavily rely on these elements for anything that needs magnetism like wind turbines, hard drives for computers and MRI scanners are just a few.

Co-lead author Tim Moorsom, from the University’s School of Physics & Astronomy, said: “Having such a small variety of magnetic materials limits our ability to tailor magnetic systems to the needs of applications without using very rare or toxic materials. Having to build devices with only the three magnetic metals naturally available to us is rather like trying to build a skyscraper using only wrought iron. Why not add a little carbon and make steel?”

MAGNETS: How Do They Work?

Just imagine if we could turn other metals magnetic, we would not have to rely on just a few elements.

A team of scientists led by the University of Leeds are doing just that—they have turned manganese and copper magnetic. The research has been published in Nature Materials Science; the effect was weak, but is still really promising. The scientists also believe that their method can be used on almost any metal.

“Being able to generate magnetism in materials that are not naturally magnetic opens new paths to devices that use abundant and hazard-less elements, such as carbon and copper,” said Co-lead author Fatma Al Ma’Mari, from the School of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Leeds.

“Future technologies, such as quantum computers, will require a new breed of magnets with additional properties to increase storage and processing capabilities. Our research is a step towards creating such ‘magnetic metamaterials’ that can fulfil this need,” he added in a statement.

Buckyball: Tiny Carbon Soccer Balls:

The research involved using two very thin layers of copper and manganese. The thin sheets were then coated with a layer of organic molecules known as buckyballs, spheres of 60 carbon atoms that are about one nanometer thick. By doing this, it removed some electrons from the metals that allowed them to overcome the Stoner Criterion, which basically tells us why metals are ferromagnetic or not.

Co-author Oscar Cespedes, also from the University of Leeds, told IFLScience “that the effect they were able to produce was very small. The strength of the magnetic copper was about 10 times weaker than nickel, and 30 times weaker than iron. Magnetic manganese was about half that.”

According to IFL Science, the effect was caused by the buckyballs mixing with the atoms of the metals, so the researchers also found that making the metal film more than a few millimeters thick prevented magnetism from occurring, meaning that it can’t be scaled up to practical applications just yet. But Cespedes said that it might be possible to dissolve buckyballs or other molecules that can take electrons, such as carbon nanotubes, in the metal by first liquefying it.

This could allow a much larger amount of non-magnetic metal to be turned ferromagnetic. And the applications are numerous. Cespedes in particular notes that computer memory storage, while it “doesn’t capture the imagination of curing cancer or medical imaging,” could benefit hugely and help reduce humanity’s carbon footprint, IFL added.

“The amount of information we need to store is humongous,” Cespedes explained to IFL. “In the last two years, we have stored as much information as in the rest of our history. So we need to find a way to store it in a very efficient way, by using materials that do not harm the environment.”

The researchers are now trying to enhance the effect so it may be used in more practical applications.

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