Search Is On For New Magnet

With China controlling much of the world's rare earth minerals vital to high-powered magnets, scientist are racing to develop new types of magnets.

Published: 13-Apr-2010

gnet at the heart of high-tech products such as cell phones and hybrid cars relies upon an increasingly scarce supply of the rare earth element known as neodymium. Now one of the original inventors of that magnet hopes to create a new generation of magnetic materials that can ease or break free of that dependence.

The neodymium-iron-boron magnet represents the most powerful commercial magnet available today, and has a starring role in many technologies crucial to the U.S. economy and defense. But the U.S. overwhelmingly relies upon China for its supply of neodymium and other rare earth minerals, and China has warned that its own domestic demand may soon force it to cut off that supply.

That means the U.S. may face a shortage of neodymium and other rare earths, unless it spends the time and money to begin mining its own fairly untapped reserves. The possibility of a shortage has also led to renewed research aimed at developing magnets less dependent upon neodymium.

"It's been 27 or 28 years since the discovery of neodymium-iron-boron (Nd-Fe-B), and we have not yet found a better magnet," said George Hadjipanayis, a physicist at the University of Delaware and co-inventor of the Nd-Fe-B magnet.

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