By Christine Roulston
Researchers at the University of Victoria have discovered new lightweight magnets that could be used in making everything from extra-thin magnetic computer memory to ultra-light spacecraft parts. A paper on the study appeared in the Jan. 18 edition of Nature, a prestigious international science magazine.
For decades, researchers have attempted to create an alternative to conventional pure metal or metal alloy magnets, which are heavy, inflexible and can only be produced under high temperatures.
The team, led by UVic chemist Dr. Robin Hicks, discovered a simple method for making a new family of organic-based magnets by combining nickel and one of three different organic compounds. The discovery is the first step in designing the next generation of magnets, which could, in theory, be easily manipulated at room temperature.
“The sky’s the limit for these magnets, in principle,” says Hicks. “Suppose you want to make a particular shape of magnet—these magnets could be dissolved in solution and shaped into a different form.”
“Conventional magnets are a ubiquitous part of everyday life, controlling everything from computers to cars, so I believe these new, highly processable magnets could have endless applications.”
The serendipitous discovery occurred while Hicks’s postdoctoral student Dr. Raj Jain was working with an established recipe for making low-temperature magnets. Jain discovered that, by altering the ways in which the chemical reactions were conducted, he could make substances with room-temperature magnetic properties. In the months that followed, Jain and Hicks analyzed the magnets to determine that they had in fact created a new form of magnet.
The discovery is an important milestone in Hicks’s research career which, for the past 10 years at UVic, has focused on manipulating molecules to make new organic compounds that have extraordinary electronic, magnetic or optical properties.
His outstanding contributions to chemistry research were recognized in 2003 with the Award for Pure or Applied Inorganic Chemistry from the Canadian Society of Chemistry and in 2005 with UVic’s Craigdarroch Silver Medal for Research Excellence and the Faculty of Sciences Award for Research Excellence.
Hicks’s team of five graduate students will continue to fine tune this next generation of magnets to further develop their processability and commercial potential.