Fuel of the Future?


By Alida Cataldo

We all know that magnets have north and south poles ... or do they? Researchers in England recently found a way to (sort of) separate magnetic poles. They then discovered that these monopoles transmit magnetic currents, creating a new thing called magnetricity — a combination of the words magnet and electricity.

Electric monopoles are everywhere, but a true magnetic monopole has yet to be discovered. Even if you cut a magnet down to its protons, neutrons, electrons or even quarks, the tiny magnets that are left still have north and south poles.

How They Did It

Physicists, especially those who today hold to string theory, have believed for centuries that magnetic monopoles exist. The latest experiment may have brought them closer to discovery.

Scientists were able to produce a magnetic current in spin ice — a collection of pyramid-shaped molecules with four sides. A magnetic field pulsed to the spin ice caused some of the molecules to flip, and when one molecule flips, others do, too. Flipping creates "phantom" north and south poles that move around freely. "Eventually they get so far apart that they lose all memory of each other," says Steven Bramwell of the University College of London. "The dipole splits in half and becomes two monopoles." Flipping carries the molecules from pyramid to pyramid, resulting in a chain reaction of magnetic current similar to electricity traveling through wires.

Why Monopoles Matter

If magnetic monopoles do exist, and if science can get them to produce enough magnetricity to work like — or instead of — electricity, the world will have a new source of clean energy. Joseph Polchinski of the Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics declared that the existence of magnetic monopoles is "one of the safest bets that one can make about physics not yet seen." But he qualified that statement by saying, "... we must continue to hope that we will be lucky, or unexpectedly clever, some day."

So, if we're lucky — or clever — magnetricity may someday power our cars, appliances, computers and other "magnetronic" devices.

Classroom Discussion

  • If a true magnetic monopole is discovered, how can it be used?
  • Scientists often believe that something exists but can't prove it right away. What are other examples of recent discoveries?