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New metal alloy to aid planetary science research

Previous attempts to replicate Earth's magnetic field in the lab have proven problematic.

By Brooks Hays
New metal alloy to aid planetary science research
When it flows, a new metal alloy generates electromagnetic forces comparable to Earth's core. Photo by Yale University

Jan. 31 (UPI) -- Researchers have developed a new metal alloy with unique electromagnetic properties -- properties they hope can help them recreate the magnetic forces generated by the cores of stars and planets.

The alloy, called eGaIn, consists of various particles suspended in a combination of indium and gallium. When the liquid metal flows, it becomes highly conductive and generates strong magnetic fields.

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Researchers were able to suspend particles in the liquid metal by submerging the alloy in acid. The acid prevents oxidation, which draws particles to the surface of the liquid metal.

"We managed to suspend almost anything we wanted -- steel, zinc, nickel, iron -- basically anything with a conductivity higher than that of the eGaIn," Florian Carle, a material scientist and postdoctoral researcher at Yale University, said in a news release.

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Earth's powerful magnetic field is generated by the flow of liquid metal in its core. Researchers believe the new alloy could be used to replicate Earth's core and study the forces generated by its flow.

The study of electromagnetic forces generated by flowing liquid metal is called magnetohydrodynamics. Researchers are particularly keen on understanding why Earth's magnetic poles switch every few thousand years.

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Previous attempts to replicate Earth's magnetic field in the lab have proven problematic.

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"People have tried these big flow chambers as large as three meters across, filled with liquid sodium and spinning around like a miniature Earth," said Eric Brown, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at Yale.

Scientists believe the eGaIn alloy will allow for smaller and more easily controllable experiments.

"So they might see results that you couldn't get with liquid sodium, or even observe completely different MHD phenomena," said Carle.

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