Magnets and Nanotechnology - dummies

By Earl Boysen, Nancy C. Muir, Desiree Dudley, Christine Peterson

Nanotechnology scientists are conducting research to determine whether magnetic nanoparticles can be used to make magnets stronger using less material. This research is being done with neodymium, iron, and boron — all used in magnet production.

Neodymium is an element used to make strong magnets. Neodymium’s magnetic capability is due to the way electrons orbit each atom. A magnet is formed by aligning the spin of unpaired electrons to a magnetic field.

Each neodymium atom has seven unpaired electrons floating around each atom that can be aligned to turn a piece of neodymium into a magnet. When neodymium is used in an alloy with iron and boron, the result is small, powerful magnets used in all kinds of electronic devices. The capability to make such magnets is one of the reasons that electronic devices like laptops can be so small and lightweight.

Neodymium is a rare earth element; others include samarium, dysprosium, and praseodymium. These elements are called rare earths simply because, in their natural state, they are mixed with other elements.

This mixture means that they have to be mined and extracted, which brings with it the jeopardy of environmental pollution through the mining process. Because of these complications, there is concern that supply shortages of such elements could develop, which could have a serious effect on industrial production.

Researchers are developing magnets that use less neodymium by using neodymium nanoparticles. This research is in the early stages, but the idea is that by using nanoparticles of neodymium and other materials such as iron, the coupling between the different atoms will be stronger, resulting in a stronger magnetic field even though less material is used.