As a result of climate change, population growth, and rising expectations regarding quality of life, energy requirements for cooling processes are growing much faster worldwide than for heating. Another problem that besets today’s refrigeration systems is that most coolants cause environmental and health damage. A novel technology could provide a solution: refrigeration using magnetic materials in magnetic fields.
Together with Prof. Antoni Planes and Prof. Lluís Mañosa from the University of Barcelona, the scientists succeeded in providing experimental proof: “We used an alloy of nickel, manganese, and indium for our experiments because its conversion can be triggered at room temperature”, says Gottschall. The researchers generated the magnetic field using the strongest permanent magnets known to date – containing the rare-earth metal neodymium in addition to iron and boron. They can generate magnetic fields up to a flux density of 2 tesla – that is 40,000 times stronger than the Earth’s magnetic field. “Under such conditions, our alloy cools down by several degrees,” explains Gottschall. “Measurements we have made at the HLD have shown that a millisecond in the magnetic field is already enough for permanent transformation.”
Slight pressure – big impact
In the next step of the six-step cycle, the researchers removed the cooling element from the magnetic field, which retained its magnetization. In step three, the heat sink comes into contact with goods to be cooled down and absorbs its heat. The alloy even remains magnetic if the material returns to its original temperature. This can be remedied by mechanical pressure: in step four, a roller compresses the shape memory alloy. Under pressure, it switches to its denser, non-magnetic form and heats up in the process. When the pressure is removed in step five, the material retains its state and remains demagnetized. In the final step, the alloy releases heat into the environment until it has returned to its initial temperature and the cooling cycle can recommence.
Using rare earths sparingly
Oliver Gutfleisch is also convinced that the future belongs to solid coolants. “We have been able to show that shape-memory alloys are highly suitable for cooling cycles,” says the functional materials expert: “We need far fewer neodymium magnets but can nevertheless generate stronger fields and a correspondingly greater cooling effect.” By 2022, he intends to build a demonstrator at the TU Darmstadt that makes it possible to estimate both the actual cooling capacity under real-life conditions and the energy efficiency of the process. For this, he has received an ERC Advanced Grant from the European Research Council worth a total of 2.5 million euros over five years.
Learn more: Researchers develop magnetic cooling cycle
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