Cambridge Scientists Target Cosmic Metal to Revolutionize Clean Tech
Researchers from Cambridge are on the verge of recreating an outer space magnet known as tetrataenite, which could potentially alleviate a major crisis on Earth. This scientific endeavor holds the promise of not only providing the West with renewable tech independence from China but also ensuring a more environmentally friendly material for powering electric vehicles (EVs) and other crucial technologies.
Termed a “cosmic magnet” by researchers, tetrataenite is envisioned as a revolutionary force in advancing cleaner technology. Magnets, integral components in EVs, wind turbines, and various innovations aimed at curbing air pollution, have traditionally been crafted from “rare earth elements.” These elements are scattered throughout the Earth’s crust, demanding invasive and costly mining processes for extraction.
China has long held dominance in this sector, controlling approximately 58% of rare earth mining and a staggering 92% of magnet production as of 2020, according to the U.S. Energy Department. Recognizing the environmental impacts and heavy dependence on China, there has been an urgent quest for alternative materials that don’t rely on rare earths, notes Cambridge professor Lindsay Greer.
Enter tetrataenite, an iron-nickel alloy, hailed as a potential panacea for the aforementioned challenges. The catch, however, is that this cosmic metal naturally forms over millions of years on meteorites, making it an elusive and impractical solution. Yet, undeterred by the lack of tractor beams and transporters, scientists from Cambridge are actively engaged in recreating tetrataenite within the confines of their laboratories.
A crucial breakthrough has emerged by incorporating phosphorus into the alloy mix, as outlined in a university report. Phosphorus, a commonplace element, collaborates with iron and nickel to induce the necessary atomic movements, facilitating the formation of a tetrataenite magnet without the protracted timeframes characteristic of outer space. The scientists at Cambridge claim to have successfully replicated tetrataenite within seconds by pouring the alloy mixture into a mold.
The significance of this breakthrough lies in its elimination of mass production challenges encountered in prior attempts to recreate tetrataenite, including a 1960s project involving “neutron irradiation.” The current technique, developed by Cambridge researchers in collaboration with colleagues from Austria, simplifies the process significantly.
Cambridge professor Lindsay Greer remarked on the simplicity of their method, stating, “We just melted the alloy, poured it into a mold, and we had tetrataenite,” emphasizing the efficiency of their approach.
As of the latest update, researchers are rigorously testing the material’s performance as a high-quality magnet, indispensable for the myriad digital age technologies that have become integral to our daily lives. Furthermore, they are actively seeking partnerships with magnet manufacturers to refine the process of producing reliable, space-age magnets at an accelerated pace.
The success achieved thus far has led experts to question the conventional belief that tetrataenite exclusively forms over millions of years on meteorites. Professor Lindsay Greer expressed the transformative nature of their results, stating, “This result represents a total change in how we think about this material,” underscoring the paradigm shift brought about by their research.