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10 Questions for a Materials Scientist: Mr. Rare Earth -- Dr. Karl A. Gschneidner, Jr.

April 3, 2013 - 12:59pm

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Dr. Karl Gschneidner is holding a neodymium-iron-boron magnet produced using a new, greener process. The process that Dr. Gschneidner helped develop doesn’t produce the environmentally unfriendly byproducts that result from traditional manufacturing methods. | Photo courtesy of Ames Laboratory.

Dr. Karl Gschneidner is holding a neodymium-iron-boron magnet produced using a new, greener process. The process that Dr. Gschneidner helped develop doesn’t produce the environmentally unfriendly byproducts that result from traditional manufacturing methods. | Photo courtesy of Ames Laboratory.

Meet Dr. Karl A. Gschneidner, Jr. -- a distinguished professor at Iowa State University, a senior metallurgist at the Energy Department’s Ames Laboratory and chief scientist for the newest Energy Innovation Hub, the Critical Materials Institute. A jack-of-all-trades, Dr. Gschneidner’s research spans the fields of physical chemistry, materials science, engineering and physics. In this edition of 10 Questions, Dr. Gschneidner shares insights into his research of rare earth materials.

Question: Your nickname is Mr. Rare Earth. How did you get this name?
Dr. Karl Gschneidner: Originally people wanted to call me the “father of rare earths,” but I disagreed. The “father of rare earths” is the Ames Lab’s first director, Frank Spedding. He is the one who developed the process for separating and purifying rare earths that led other scientists to discover the rare earth phosphors and magnets. No one disagreed with me on that. Since I wasn’t the “father of rare earths,” people started calling me Mr. Rare Earth, and I’ve had that nickname for the past 15-20 years.

Q: What is your favorite rare earth and why?
KG: It depends on which one I am working with. I have worked with practically all of them -- mixing them together to make alloys and to get different phenomena. I have probably done the most work with cerium, but I would hate to choose a favorite -- I might hurt one of the other rare earths’ feelings.

Q: What brought you to the Ames Lab?
KG: I got my Ph.D. at Iowa State University, which is where the Ames Lab is located, and while there I worked closely with a couple of Ames scientists, including Dr. Spedding and Dr. Adrian Daane. When the Ames Lab offered me a job, I jumped at the chance. It gave me the opportunity to have graduate students and post docs work with me on projects that I was interested in, much like I did when I was a student at Iowa State.

Q: What projects are you currently working on?
KG: I do mostly basic energy science research. One project we’re working on is intermetallic compounds -- looking at magnetic properties. Most of the rare earth intermetallic compounds we are looking at were studied 50 years ago, but we are finding all kinds of new phenomena. The reason we are finding these new things is because when scientists measured magnetic properties years ago, they used strong magnetic fields that destroy these interesting phenomena that occur at low magnetic fields and low temperatures.

Over the past two years, I have also spent a lot of time talking with Congress, federal agencies and the media about the rare earth crisis that threatens nearly every segment of the technology market and our military and energy securities.

One of my sideline projects is magnetic refrigeration: it could replace gas-compression engines in your refrigerator at home and has the potential to be used in air conditioning to cool buildings, vehicles, aircraft and vessels. There is a lot of interest in magnetic refrigeration because it’s environmentally friendly -- it doesn’t use greenhouse gases -- and it is a lot quieter.

Q: We recently announced that Ames Laboratory will lead the new Critical Materials Institute, and you will serve as its chief scientist. What will you do in this new role?
KG: The Critical Materials Institute has four focus areas -- diversifying supply, developing substitutes, increasing reuse and recycling, and cross-cutting research into critical materials -- and each focus area has a leader that manages projects. As the chief scientist, I serve as an advisor for the focus leaders and the Critical Materials Institute’s Director, Dr. King.

Q: You also teach at Iowa State University. What advice would you give students or young scientists?
KG: Study hard and get good grades -- that makes a big difference in your job opportunities. Beyond grades, you should also be curious and enjoy what you’re doing.

Q: Your career is quiet extensive, spanning more than five decades. What keeps you going every day?
KG: Having fun. I look forward to seeing what we discover every day. I have been lucky -- I have pretty much had free rein, at least within reason, to work on research projects that interest me. I tell people, “I am like a five year old with a toy box, and my toy box is rare earths.”

Q: What do you do in your spare time?
KG: My wife and I take winter vacations. I also like to garden. I grow vegetables and fruit all year long. In the winter, I have an indoor garden, where I grow enough tomatoes and peppers that last us until our outdoor garden starts producing vegetables.

Q: What is your favorite tool in the lab?
KG: My pencil or pen.

Q: There is a lot of confusion about rare earths and critical materials. What is one fact about rare earths everyone should know?
KG: When you buy an automobile, it is the biggest purchase of rare earth materials you will ever make. Rare earths permanent magnets are in the electric motors and computer that monitors and controls the various devices in cars; rare earths are used in the sensors that control the amount of oxygen that goes to the engine; and rare earth catalysts clean the exhaust. You don’t see them, but rare earths are there, making everything run better.

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