ChE/MIE’s Lewis Awarded $2.1 M for Novel Magnetic Materials

Laura Lewis

Distinguished University and Cabot Professor Laura Lewis, ChE/MIE, is leading a $2.1M Department of Energy grant, in collaboration with the University of Delaware, the Northeastern University Physics department, and the University of Warwick, UK, for “Designing Strong Stability in Non-Critical and Rare-Earth-Lean Magnetic Materials.” The grant is one of thirteen projects funded to support research in Critical Minerals & Materials by the Office of Basic Energy Sciences.

Distinguished University and Cabot Professor Laura Lewis, chemical engineering (ChE) and mechanical and industrial engineering (MIE), has been awarded a $2.1 million grant from the Department of Energy (DOE) to discover Nature’s rules for creation of competitive magnetic materials comprised of non-critical elements.

“The field of magnetic materials has been a long-term scientific pursuit of mine, and one that is incredibly important,” says Lewis. “The type of strong, permanent magnets that we are focused on allow the tireless transition of energy and are used in everything from wind turbines to electric vehicles to cell phones and computers.”

The materials used for these applications are typically platinum-group metals, such as platinum and palladium, or rare-earth metals.

“These metals are very expensive and/or involve geopolitical issues that make refining and distribution of them difficult, but in either case they are a limited resource,” says Lewis. “According to one estimate, the demand for these magnets will reach $37 billion by 2027, and the market will far outstrip the supply.”

With this three-year grant, Lewis is working with collaborators from the University of Delaware, the Northeastern University Physics department, and the University of Warwick, UK. They are one of thirteen projects funded through a competition for research in critical minerals and materials sponsored by the DOE’s Office of Basic Energy Sciences.

The funding opportunity sought researchers who can understand from a fundamental basis how to create comparable magnetic strength in currently used magnets, but that do not use these special elements. The DOE is also interested in how we can create a domestic supply of these critical materials, as well as how we can recycle and reuse them.

Together, Lewis and her collaborators will be working from computational, theoretical, and experimental viewpoints to find fundamental recipes to develop magnetic strength at the atomic level using temperature, pressure, and magnetic fields.

“My computational colleagues can do virtual experiments that we can’t do in real life, so they will start the process by looking for that perfect combination in which the atomic orbitals will interact in the same way as the platinum-group or rare-earth metals,” says Lewis. “Once they find a promising ‘recipe,’ then we will be able to do testing using proxy materials to see if we can replicate the properties we’re looking for in the real world.”

For Lewis, this grant represents another example of Northeastern’s inclination toward cross-disciplinary study to better the world.

“One of the things I’ve always appreciated about Northeastern is its low barriers to interaction between colleagues from diverse departments and fields,” says Lewis. “You don’t see this kind of collaboration at many other institutions, so I am happy to be working with partners here and across the world on this strategic solution.”

DOE Grant Project Abstract:

The existing portfolio of energy-critical materials will be expanded through interdisciplinary research that elucidates factors controlling stability in technologically important magnetic systems. These systems are essential to modern society, permitting the contactless interconversion of electrical, mechanical, and increasingly, thermal energies. Employing a combined theoretical-computational-experimental approach, strategies and design principles will be delineated to realize magnetic systems of low- or zero-rare-earth/platinum group element content. In particular, efforts will focus on understanding electronic and magnetic responses at the sub-nanometer scale that permit kinetic and/or thermodynamic access and control of magnetocrystalline anisotropy. These strategies will clarify essential lattice conditions, including atomic defects, chemical additives, and composition profiles along crystallite boundaries that are the most favorable for achieving magnetic stability.

Two complementary theoretical and computational approaches (Hamiltonian-type methods linking symmetry with physical phenomena and Density Functional Theory (DFT)-based Disordered Local Moment (DLM) techniques) will guide experimental protocols to achieve an understanding of magnetic stability. These efforts will address the fundamental science underpinning the intrinsic properties of magnetic materials which arise from a complex glue of electrons binding the nuclei of a material together, generating magnetism and determining atomic arrangements. Tightly coupled experimental efforts will examine the thermodynamic metastability, the lattice defect structure and the associated magnetic character of two families of ferromagnetic materials featuring atomic layers within the crystal lattice. Connections between theoretical, computational and experimental outcomes will be validated using advanced high-resolution probes of the crystal lattice condition, as impacted by thermal, chemical, strain and magnetic field energy contributions during synthesis and processing.

Outcomes of the project will allow access to competitive magnetic materials, comprised mainly of non-critical elements, that are thermally and kinetically stable at technologically relevant temperatures. Computational/theoretical information revealed during the project will guide the design of magnetic materials at the sub-nanometer scale as well as provide input for fine-tuning of synthesis and processing parameters. Further, it is anticipated that overarching design principles and processing protocols will be discovered in the course of this work that can be generalized to broader classes of materials.

Related Faculty: Laura H. Lewis

Related Departments:Chemical Engineering, Mechanical & Industrial Engineering