Facebook Twitter



University of Utah scientists are working to perfect the world's first magnetic polymer so that it is stable at room temperature. It is a plastic-like material invented by the team's leader, Joel S. Miller.

Miller, a U. chemistry professor, described the properties of the new material Wednesday during a "science at breakfast" function sponsored by the university's science department, held in the Little America Hotel. He invented the material while he was with the DuPont Corp. in Wilmington, Del., in 1991."Magnetic and conducting polymers are in the future," he declared. "There is no doubt our research and development will result in improved materials and commercial applications."

A group of 10 or 11 students and postdoctorate researchers - including visiting professors from Paris and Osaka, Japan - are working to perfect magnetic polymers. Currently, magnetic polymers that can be studied at room temperature are unstable in the open air.

The U. researchers are collaborating with physicists at Ohio State University, Columbus, who are headed by Professor Arthur Epstein, in a project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.

Among future uses of magnetic polymers will be "smart material," Miller added. Smart material already in use is the photo-sensitive plastic in glasses, which darkens when exposed to sunlight and lightens indoors.

"In the future, you're going to see many more types of things like this around," he said. Some of them will involved magnetic poly-mers.

The new materials are revolutionary in that they are nonmetal-lic magnets. Until Miller's invention, all magnets were made of metals like iron, cobalt and nickle, or used metallic oxides.

"Without magnets, society would not be the way it is today," he said. Magnets are use in microphones, television sets, electric motors. A car may have 20 different magnets.

"Magnets are in your computer disks and the reader for your computer disks," Miller said.

Polymer materials are formed of giant, nonmetallic molecules, such as plastics and natural fibers like cotton and wood.

Magnetic polymers could have great value someday in shielding power lines, improving stereo speakers, storing information on computer disks and making more efficient electric motors.

While dozens of researchers in the audience watched, Miller projected a view onto a screen, showing a sealed vial that he was holding. Inside the glass tube were chunks and fragments of the plastic powder inside.

When he slid an ordinary magnet along the outside of the tube, the clumps of the material inside followed it, demonstrating that it was magnetic.

According to Miller, some of the new polymers are more strongly mag-netic than iron.

Such a polymer could be better for storing data on disks. It could be a strong, transparent, noncon-ductive, flexible plastic.

A magnetic polymer used in computers would be easier to manufacture, with fewer worries about environmental contamination than when making traditional printed circuit boards.

"It's the very first magnet ever made that does not have bonding between all the different sites. Therefore, it's soluble," he said of the new material.

One material he devised in the 1980s is magnetic only at extremely low temperatures. But the newer compound is an improvement over that. "This particular material is, in fact, magnetic at room temperature," he said.

The powder retains magnetic properties at up to 170 degrees.

A use he has already shown for the new material is that it can shield strong magnetic fields produced by traditional magnets. Eventually, if a product like it can be perfected, it may be used to wrap high-voltage power lines, reducing their magnetic fields.

However, for the time being, magnetic polymers that are useful at room temperature must be sealed within vials for study. "They are not air-stable," he said.

Asked how long it would be before anything useful can be manufactured out of magnetic poly-mers, he said 15 years may be a good guess. "This is really right at the beginning," he said.

Aiding his presentation was his son, Alan, a 16-year-old student at Rowland Hall-St. Mark's School.