Nanoscientists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have received a prestigious grant to develop new magnetic materials that could help reduce global warming and the nation's dependence on foreign resources.
Researchers in UNL's Nebraska Center for Materials and Nanoscience, who are nationally known experts in magnetic nanotechnology, are part of a collaboration led by the University of Delaware to develop better ways to power hybrid cars, wind turbines and computer discs, among many other applications. This team, which includes several universities, a federal laboratory and a company, recently received a three-year, nearly $4.5 million Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy grant from the U.S. Department of Energy funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. UNL's share of the grant is $675,000.
"There's huge interest in energy research in this country now," said physics professor David Sellmyer, director of the center and the leader of this research at UNL. "Our country definitely needs to get better at creating energy for all kinds of power applications."
Many clean energy and computing technologies rely on lightweight permanent magnets and magnetic materials made from rare earth metals, such as neodymium. Despite the name, rare earth ores are common in the earth's crust. Nearly all of the world's supply of rare earth metals comes from China, which has more than half of the ore deposits. Demand for these metals is skyrocketing, and China is restricting exports. The extraction process used in China also creates environmental problems.
Sellmyer and his UNL colleagues, physicist Ralph Skomski and materials engineer Jeff Shield, are developing materials with stronger magnetic properties that do not contain rare earth metals. Stronger magnets produce more energy for powering wind turbines and hydroelectric generators. They also reduce the size and power consumption of everything from hybrid and electric cars to computer memory storage devices. Lighter-weight vehicles increase gas efficiency and reduce exhaust emissions.
To better manipulate the magnetic properties of materials, the researchers are using nanotechnology to build material at the atomic scale. The ability to precisely position every atom in a nanoparticle allows full control of the material's magnetic properties.
Collaborators at the University of Delaware, Northeastern University, Virginia Commonwealth University, the Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory and the Electron Energy Corp. also are developing new magnetic nanomaterialsa, concentrating on techniques that use smaller concentrations of rare-earth metals or composite materials.
Sellmyer said the UNL center's undertaking is the kind of high-risk, high-reward project the Department of Energy is looking for.
"The best magnets that we've got now were discovered in 1985 or so," he said. "We've made advances, but nothing that's a big quantum leap. And that's what we want: a home run rather than a single."
The Nebraska Center for Materials and Nanoscience, founded in 1988 and funded largely by grants from the National Science Foundation and the departments of Energy and Defense, brings together experts from chemistry, engineering and physics to study and create new materials and structures for a wide range of applications.
"We're one of the top magnetism groups in the country," Sellmyer said. The fact that just 1 percent of all Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy proposals were funded demonstrates UNL's preeminence in the field.
"This is a big source of funding that should greatly improve our chances of success in a short amount of time," he said.