Researchers at the University of Cambridge have discovered a material that gives a whole new complexion to the term 'fridge magnet'. When this alloy is placed in a magnetic field, it gets colder. Karl Sandeman and his co-workers think that their material - a blend of cobalt, manganese, silicon and germanium - could help to usher in a new type of refrigerator that is up to 40 percent more energy-efficient than conventional models.The 'magnetic fridge' envisaged by the Cambridge team would use a phenomenon called the magnetocaloric effect (MCE), whereby a magnetic field causes certain materials to get warmer (a positive MCE) or cooler (a negative MCE). Although the effect was discovered more than 120 years ago, it is only recently that magnetocaloric materials have been known with the right properties for use in everyday refrigeration. But several factors have so far prevented such applications.
For one thing, some of the materials - typically metal alloys - that show the strongest MCE contain the element gadolinium, which is very expensive. And some of the best potential alternatives contain arsenic, raising health concerns.
Sandeman and colleagues have now found a material that is neither toxic nor costly, and which generates significant cooling at around room temperature. The key to the magnetocaloric behaviour is a sudden change in the magnetic state of the compound - a so-called magnetic transition. The material is magnetic because it contains metal atoms that themselves act like tiny bar magnets. As it is warmed up from subzero temperatures, there comes a point where these atomic magnets abruptly change the way in which they are lined up.