In a process much like the materials science equivalent of bioengineering, researchers at the Department of Energy’s Ames Lab have figured out how to replace individual atoms in a solid magnetic compund much as biologists tweak and replace individual genes to alter organisms. The result are magnets with markedly different properties, all from swapping in a few atoms here and there.
While a few atoms doesn’t sound like much in the grand scheme of things, swapping them precisely into and out of materials is a massive chore. Metallic solids are generally highly symmetrical, with their atoms organizing themselves into a tight and highly ordered crystal lattice. The individual atoms making up any lattice influence its properties, but the researchers found that atoms at certain locations in the lattice have a disproportionate influence over such characteristics as melting point, strength, and even magnetism.