Shining a light on magnet metal neodymium’s past
The huge growth of the magnets business, and neodymium’s crucial role in that business, has tended to obliterate the element’s past. For a long time before magnets came along, neodymium was attracting attention for its use in glass and lasers.
Incidentally, the first the general public got an inkling of neodymium use in magnets came in a story in 1983 in The Wall Street Journal – but more of that below.
Neodymium has a long and illustrious association with the glass industry. Back in 1912, The Times of London was reporting that a scientist, Sir William Crookes, was working with Whitefriars Glass Works in the British capital to come up glasses (spectacles or goggles) that would reduce heat radiation and ultra-violet light hitting the eyes of people working in industrial plants. Crookes was experimenting by combining a number of elements to achieve this end, including cerium and praseodymium – and neodymium. Later goggles were produced for use by welders that contained particles of neodymium which removed the green colour caused by iron contaminants.
Then there were lasers.
In 1968 the Institute for Solid State Physics in Tokyo was producing a range of lasers. The ones that contained atoms of neodymium produced a ruby red laser. That year also British newspapers were reporting that ruby red lasers were being used in opthalmoscopes for welding detached retinas in eyes of patients.
There was also a report from the Royal College of Surgeons in 1968 that the intense but invisible ultraviolet light produced by another type of laser containing neodymium “causes strong fluorescence in certain elements and there are established laser marks making malign tissue glow brightly”, thus allowing surgeons to identify the areas for treatment.
By 1990 neodymium-YAG (neodymium-doped yttrium aluminium garnet lasers) were being used in keyhole surgery, the light being transmitted at the end of the laparoscope being manipulated by the surgeon. And that year also, people who feared the drill while sitting in the dentist’s chair were being told about Dr Louise Davidson of St Andrews in Scotland who was using a neodymium-YAG laser whose pulses “caused decay in teeth to evaporate”. (It seems, alas, that drill is still alive and well in most dental surgeries.)
Neodymium was also widely used in glass. As The New York Times reported in 1984, “television sets of all shapes and sizes have had one thing in common – when the set is off, the screen has a dull, greenish-grey colour”. No longer: the paper reported that General Electric had developed its first blue picture tube. The inclusion of neodymium oxide in the tube not only prevented the television picture from looking washed out when the set was on in a brightly lit room, but the tube looked blue when turned off (instead of the previous dull appearance). Two years later American consumers were able to buy neodymium-containing light bulbs made in Finland that, instead of being in a clear glass envelope, were made with blue glass that absorbed the red and yellow tones sent out by the filament, “resulting in a cooler light source”.
And then the magnets came along. In 1983 The Wall Street Journal reported that research workers at General Motors were racing their counterparts at Sumitomo Special Metals to develop a new magnet that looked as if it could revolutionize the electric-motor business.
Sumitomo was using a neodymium-iron alloy to produce magnets that matched energy levels of existing conventional magnets – but were much cheaper to make.
“General Motors’ short-term interest in neodymium magnets is in reducing the size, weight and cost of electric motors in the cars and trucks it builds, such as those used to power wipers, electric windows and automatic seats,” the newspaper said.
But there was also a warning from another company that the new technology was far from proven. Edward Cornell, an electric energy specialist at General Electric, made this point to the Journal: “There have been supposed breakthroughs like this before but for one reason or another they have fallen through the cracks”.
Not this time, though.
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