Scientists find rare-earth-like magnetic properties in iron

A single crystal of lithium-iron nitride. Scientists at Ames Laboratory observed magnetic properties in iron-ions in these lithium-iron nitrides that are typically associated with rare-earth elements. (Image courtesy of DOE/Ames Laboratory)

Researchers at the US Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory, in Iowa, have discovered rare-earth-like magnetic properties in iron under some special circumstances, which may provide a new and more available ingredient for manufacturing electric motors and generators.

The discovery, say the scientists, opens the possibility of using iron to provide both the magnetism and permanence in high-strength permanent magnets, which are currently used for hybrid cars motors. There, electromagnets and permanent magnets transform electricity into mechanical movement.

Iron gives those magnets their strength, but it still needs rare earth elements to be transformed into an industrial magnet. The challenge here is the actual rare-earth minerals, which are expensive and are not found in large quantities to meet the demand.

However, Ames Laboratory physicist Paul Canfield and his team suggest that iron can be magnetized using nitrogen.

“This isn’t an industrial breakthrough at this point because these magnetic properties only reveal themselves at cryogenic temperatures. But, it’s a basic science breakthrough that hopefully will point the way to future technical breakthroughs,” Canfield said in a press release.

The teams hopes the findings help the car and high tech industries to replace the use of rare elements.