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Leighton leads breakthrough collaborative research on "fool's gold"

July 29, 2020 - In a breakthrough new study, scientists and engineers at the University of Minnesota have electrically transformed the abundant and low-cost non-magnetic material iron sulfide, also known as “fool’s gold” or pyrite, into a magnetic material.

This is the first time scientists have ever electrically transformed an entirely non-magnetic material into a magnetic one, and it could be the first step in creating valuable new magnetic materials for more energy-efficient computer memory devices.

The research is published in Science Advances, a peer-reviewed scientific journal published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

“Most people knowledgeable in magnetism would probably say it was impossible to electrically transform a non-magnetic material into a magnetic one. When we looked a little deeper, however, we saw a potential route, and made it happen,” said Chris Leighton, the lead researcher on the study and a University of Minnesota Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science.

Leighton and his colleagues, including Eray Aydil at New York University and Laura Gagliardi (chemistry) at the University of Minnesota, have been studying iron sulfide, or ‘fool’s gold,’ for more than a decade for possible use in solar cells. Sulfur in particular is a highly abundant and low-cost byproduct of petroleum production. Unfortunately, scientists and engineers haven’t found a way to make the material efficient enough to realize low-cost, earth-abundant solar cells.

“We really went back to the iron sulfide material to try to figure out the fundamental roadblocks to cheap, non-toxic solar cells,” Leighton said. “Meanwhile, my group was also working in the emerging field of magnetoionics where we try to use electrical voltages to control magnetic properties of materials for potential applications in magnetic data storage devices. At some point we realized we should be combining these two research directions, and it paid off.”

Leighton said the next step is to continue research to replicate the process at higher temperatures, which the team’s preliminary data suggest should certainly be possible. They also hope to try the process with other materials and to demonstrate potential for real devices.

In addition to Leighton, members of the research team included Jeffery Walter of Augsburg University (formerly University of Minnesota), Bryan Voigt and Ezra Day-Roberts (graduate students at the University of Minnesota), Kei Heltemes (undergraduate student at Augsburg), and University of Minnesota faculty Rafael Fernandes (physics and astronomy) and Turan Birol (chemical engineering and materials science).

The research was funded primarily by the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) at the University of Minnesota, a recently renewed program of the National Science Foundation.

To read the full research study entitled “Voltage-induced ferromagnetism in a diamagnet,” visit: https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/6/31/eabb7721

Excerpt taken from news release written by Rhonda Zurn, College of Science and Engineering. Read the full news release here:

Related Link: https://cse.umn.edu/college/news/fools-gold-may-be-valuable-after-all

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