As visitors at the Iowa State Fair play with water as a substitute for liquid metal and feel the cooling effects of magnetic refrigeration, the director of Ames National Laboratory also wants people to think about how their actions affect the future.
Iowa State University’s exhibit at the fair’s Varied Industries Building will highlight the work of the national lab, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.
Lab director Adam Schwartz said, “We want all Iowans, all the U.S. and really all the world to be attentive to their resource usage.”
Schwartz said it’s easy to imagine the world with a billion more people in it in 10, 20 or 30 years — all of whom will need clean air, clean water and food, while resources on Earth are getting harder to find and more expensive and environmentally damaging to extract.
An outgrowth of the Manhattan Project to develop technology for the first atomic weapons at the end of World War II, the lab is currently working on challenges including securing supply chains of critical materials for wind turbines and electric vehicles, turning electronic and plastic waste back into usable material, and developing next-generation computing and refrigeration technologies, Schwartz said.
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A lot of that work centers around materials — either finding new uses for old materials, such as breaking down the molecular chains of plastics to create motor oil, shampoo, deodorant, makeup, sunscreen and soap, or using the properties of new materials, such as those that respond certain ways when exposed to a magnetic field.
That’s how magnetic refrigeration works and is more efficient than traditional refrigeration technology. Schwartz explained that when a magnetic field is applied to a special material, the material releases heat, and that heat’s interaction with fluid is how the cooling system works. That’s something visitors at the fair exhibit will be able to feel by touching a copper plate.
Another interactive component of the exhibit will be a hands-on water droplet experiment to explain how metal powders are manufactured — powders that accelerate the adoption of 3D printing, Schwartz said.
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Visitors also can see a demonstration of how shredded computer hard drives are dissolved without acid to pull out rare and valuable elements for re-use, while some copper is added in, making the leftover material more valuable for other recyclers.
“We want to get every one of those atoms back out,” Schwartz said of rare elements found in tens of millions of hard drives thrown out every year in the U.S. alone. Those elements could find use in electric vehicle motors.
“We want people thinking about their hard disc drives,” and the recycling or reuse of all their electronics, Schwartz said.
The process for upcycling plastics that the exhibit will highlight is not yet commercially viable, and likewise the magnetic refrigeration technology is still too expensive to be competitive. The lab is working on new, cheaper materials and systems for it.
Schwartz added that in the meantime, when it comes to plastics, recycling is still worth people’s consideration. “Recycling is better than throwing it in the landfills,” or worse, into waterways.
The lab’s exhibit at the fair is open 9 a.m.-8 p.m. daily, Aug. 11-21.
More information about the exhibit, Ames National Laboratory and Iowa State’s other activities at the Iowa State Fair is available at news.iastate.edu/news/2022/08/01/state-fair.
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Phillip Sitter covers education for the Ames Tribune, including Iowa State University and PreK-12 schools in Ames and elsewhere in Story County. Phillip can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is on Twitter @pslifeisabeauty.