Developing Stronger Nanomagnets

Building better hybrid cars, wind turbines and computers reduces global warming, but the nanomagnets used in these devices require rare earth metals. Experts in UNL’s Nebraska Center for Materials and Nanoscience (NCMN) aim to change that.

As partners in a $4.5 million Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy grant from the U.S. Department of Energy led by the University of Delaware, UNL researchers collaborate with several universities, laboratories and companies to improve nanomagnets. The grant is funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Many clean energy and electronic devices rely on magnetic materials made from rare earth metals that, despite the name, are common in the earth’s crust. However, nearly all of the world’s supply of rare earth metals comes from China. Demand for these metals is skyrocketing, China is restricting exports, and the extraction process is an environmental concern.

"There’s huge interest in energy research and development now. Our country definitely needs to get better at creating energy for all kinds of power applications," said physicist David Sellmyer, NCMN director.

Sellmyer, physicist Ralph Skomski and materials engineer Jeff Shield are developing materials with stronger magnetic properties that do not contain rare earth metals. Stronger magnets produce more energy for powering wind turbines and hydroelectric generators. They also reduce the size and power consumption of everything from hybrid and electric cars to computer memory.

To better manipulate the magnetic properties, researchers are building materials at the atomic scale. The ability to precisely position every atom in a nanoparticle allows full control of the material’s magnetic properties.

This is high-risk, high-reward research. "The best magnets that we’ve got now were discovered in 1985 or so," Sellmyer said. "We’ve made advances, but nothing that’s a big quantum leap. That’s what we want: a home run rather than a single."

NCMN is home to one of the nation’s leading magnetism research groups and is largely funded by National Science Foundation, Department of Energy and Department of Defense grants.

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Associated Web Content

DOE grant funds innovative nanotechnology research

Nebraska Center for Materials and Nanoscience website

NUtech Ventures Jeff Shield Profile


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