Newly discovered magnet has field that pops in and out of existence

8 Feb 2019

Image: © mputsylo/

Unlike conventional magnets, a new discovery could drastically alter the performance of data storage technologies.

A concept for a new magnet first suggested in the 1960s has come to fruition, and it could be about to shake up some industries in a big way. Publishing its findings in Nature Communications, researchers in the US revealed a new ‘singlet-based’ magnet.

Unlike a conventional magnet whose constituents align with one another to form a strong magnetic field, the singlet-based magnet has magnetic fields that pop in and out of existence, resulting in an unstable force. While you would think this would be counterintuitive, the researchers believe this magnet could have significantly more flexibility than conventional ones.

For example, the lead researcher of the project, Andrew Wray of New York University, said that singlet-based magnets should have a more sudden transition between magnetic and non-magnetic phases. This would mean that the operator of the magnet wouldn’t need much effort to get the material to change states, which could be a great boon for power consumption and switching speed inside a computer.

A bizarre, enigmatic material

Explaining further about the science behind the breakthrough, the researchers said the singlet-based magnet does something that sounds impossible: being magnetic while lacking the ‘magnetic moments’ of a traditional material. It gets around this using a different, temporary kind of magnetic moment called a ‘spin exciton’, which can appear when electrons collide with one another under the right conditions.

Despite only lasting for a brief moment, the original theory suggested that a lot of spin excitons triggering together would result in the creation of a cascade of more spin excitons. After some trial and error, the team found this could be achieved in a robust magnet dubbed USb2.

First author of the paper, Lin Miao, said: “This material had been quite an enigma for the last couple of decades – the ways that magnetism and electricity talk to one another inside it were known to be bizarre and only begin to make sense with this new classification.”

More specifically, USb2 was shown to hold the critical ingredient for singlet-based magnetism because it has ‘hundness’, a quantum mechanical property that governs how electrons generate magnetic moments, proven to be crucial for phenomena such as superconductivity.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic