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Magnet makeover

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In ancient times, they were considered magical objects with supernatural powers. These days, we just stick them on our refrigerators. Yet those little magnets deserve our admiration more than ever. Take laptop computers, with their slim hard drives. It became possible to manufacture the motors for those drives only after the development of especially powerful permanent magnets in the early 1980s. Such muscular magnets are now found in many other places as well-various household appliances, cellphones, and the small electric motors that operate accessories in our cars, to name a few. They are also critical in the brawny electric motors that propel hybrid vehicles and in the generators attached to many wind turbines. So they can help both to reduce energy consumption and produce green electric power. Because the magnets themselves are hidden away, many of us tend to take them for granted. We shouldn't, especially not now. The manufacture of most high-performance magnets requires neodymium, a rare earth element that's in short supply. Almost all of the world's production comes from China, which has increasingly restricted exports to ensure that it has enough to satisfy its own needs. So the price of neodymium has been skyrocketing. If the trend continues, pretty soon we'll have a real crisis on our hands.

Published in:

Spectrum, IEEE  (Volume:48 ,  Issue: 8 )