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Cosmic magnets vs long-age dogma

Highly magnetic tetrataenite forms in seconds, not millions of years


Permanent magnets

Tetrataenite from a meteorite.

Powerful permanent magnets are vital for much modern technology. The strongest in the world are the so-called rare-earth magnets. They are much stronger than previous magnets—they can hold thousands of times their own weight. In fact, they must be handled with care: two magnets can attract so strongly that they pinch soft tissue dangerously or fly together with such force that shrapnel is thrown off.

Rare-earth magnets are essential for electric vehicles and wind turbines. They are also important in computer hard drives, cordless tools, microphones, loudspeakers, and hand-powered flashlights. But what is a ‘rare earth’? ‘Rare earth’ is the name of a group of metals called the lanthanides, plus scandium and yttrium. The main rare earths in magnets are neodymium, alloyed with iron and boron (e.g., Nd2Fe14B); and samarium, alloyed with cobalt (either SmCo5 or Sm2Co17 with a smattering of other elements).

However, the major problem with rare earths is their availability. Note, NOT rarity, despite the misnomer—samarium is more plentiful than tin, while neodymium is about five times more common—about as plentiful as cobalt, nickel, or copper. The problem is mining it: they are not in concentrated seams, so a lot of material must be mined to extract enough of the metal. So the mines are quite environmentally disruptive. And at present, one country has almost a monopoly on rare earth production: China.1

Tetrataenites: alternatives to rare-earth magnets?

Neodymium magnets (small cylinders) lifting steel spheres. Such magnets can easily lift thousands of times their own weight.

Scientists have been looking for alternatives: other materials that could produce powerful magnets that would be easy to make. One of the important features of magnetic materials is called maximum energy product, also called (BH)max. (BH)max describes the maximum magnetic field of a unit of material. This is often measured in MG·Oe (mega-gauss-oersted), where 1 MG·Oe = 7.958 kJ/m3. (BH)max of KS Steel, used in older permanent magnets, is only about 1 MG·Oe. Before rare-earth magnets, the best were made from Alnico (aluminium nickel cobalt alloy), which had a (BH)max ~5.5 MG·Oe. However, this was outclassed by samarium magnets, (BH)max ~33 MG·Oe. Neodymium magnets are even stronger, (BH)max ~50 MG·Oe.

So there was no known alternative to rare earth magnets on Earth. However, one candidate came from outside Earth: a mineral discovered in a meteorite, an iron-nickel alloy called tetrataenite (FeNi). The name comes from another iron-nickel alloy in meteorites called taenite. While taenite is cubic, tetrataenite is tetragonal (four-fold symmetry).

In 2014, researchers discovered that a slightly iron-rich version of tetrataenite (~Fe55Ni45) had excellent magnetic properties. In particular, (BH)max could be up to 42 MG·Oe. That is, tetrataenite is better than samarium magnets and almost as good as neodymium magnets.2

Long-age dogma

University of Cambridge, Department of Materials Science & Metallurgygreer
Lindsay Greer, Professor of Materials Science, Department of Materials Science & Metallurgy, University of Cambridge (UK). Note that the title “Professor” in the UK university system is the highest academic rank.

However, one obstacle is that it was thought to take millions of years to form. The thinking was: it is hard to get atoms in a metal to diffuse to the correct positions to develop the needed four-fold symmetry. So, it would require a vast amount of time as the meteorite cooled slowly. Scientists could form small amounts of tetrataenite by bombarding iron-nickel alloys with neutrons to enable the atoms to move. However, this is energy intensive and unsuitable for mass production.

But materials scientists recently made a breakthrough. They discovered the non-metallic element phosphorus in meteorites containing tetrataenite. They realized that a small amount of phosphorus atoms enabled the nickel and iron atoms to diffuse much faster. So they realized that making tetrataenite could be as simple as melting the three elements together. The team leader, Professor Lindsay Greer from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Materials Science & Metallurgy, described it as follows:

What was so astonishing was that no special treatment was needed: we just melted the alloy, poured it into a mold, and we had tetrataenite. The previous view in the field was that you couldn’t get tetrataenite unless you did something extreme, because otherwise you’d have to wait millions of years for it to form. This result represents a total change in how we think about this material.3

In fact, it took only a few seconds to form. This means that the formation was speeded up by an amazing 11 to 15 orders of magnitude (magnitude = power of 10, so the formation was accelerated 1011–1015 times). The original paper concluded in the abstract:

The formation of tetrataenite on industrially practicable timescales also throws into question the interpretation of its formation in meteorites and their associated cooling rates.4

Lessons for creationists

First, creationists love good operational science like this. This science involves observation, testing, and repetition. In fact, science depends on biblical assumptions and flourished under a biblical worldview. Biblical creationists founded most branches of science, and many scientific laws and quantities were named after them. The debate is about something very different: the weak historical sciences of uniformitarian geology and evolutionary biology.

Second, this is only one of many examples of things wrongly thought to take millions of years, contrary to the Bible. Long-agers have been using such ‘evidence’ for many years, only for it to fall flat when a much faster formation method was discovered. For example, granite and large rock crystals can form much faster than evolutionists claimed, if water is present.5 Opals need only weeks to months to form, given the right ingredients, not long ages.6 Water can also speed up gemstone growth by four orders of magnitude. Under the right conditions, diamonds can form in minutes, not needing millions of years. Mudstone was thought to require extremely slow settling from almost still water. In reality, it can settle quickly from fast-flowing water.

So next time you hear of something that ‘must’ have taken millions of years to form, ask: how can they be sure? We have heard this so many times before, and new evidence refuted it. Therefore, such claims should not undermine trust in the Bible, including its timescale.

Published: 8 November 2022

References and notes

  1. Stenning, T., Researchers aim to solve the rare earths crisis, phys.org, 18 Oct 2022. Return to text.
  2. Lewis, L.H. and 11 others, Inspired by nature: investigating tetrataenite for permanent magnet applications, J. Physics: Condensed Matter 26:064213, 2014 | doi:10.1088/0953-8984/26/6/064213. Return to text.
  3. University of Cambridge, New approach to ‘cosmic magnet’ manufacturing could reduce reliance on rare earths in low-carbon technologies, phys.org, 24 Oct 2022. Return to text.
  4. Ivanov, I.P. and 4 others, Direct formation of hard-magnetic tetrataenite in bulk alloy castings, Advanced Science, 25 Oct 2022 | doi:10.1002/advs.202204315. Return to text.
  5. O’Brien, J., Fast, fine gemstones, Creation 43(4):54–55, 2021. Return to text.
  6. Walker, T., Fiery opals from the Flood: These stunning gemstones formed at a unique time in Earth’s history, Creation 44(4):12–15, 2022. Return to text.

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