Why Iron Pyrite (Idiot’s Gold) Is the Compound of the Future


Remember last summer when your kids thought for a moment they were looking for gold at the Black Hills Mining Museum just to get the instructor to break their little hearts by telling them the “gold” that the museum actually has in its crick, worthless fool’s gold? Let them get their little iron pyrite linen sacks because it turns out this guy, dressed like an 1840s gold prospector, couldn’t have been more wrong.

Yes. It just so happens that, thanks to the visionary work of a group of scientists at the University of Minnesota who believe iron pyrite is the compound of the future, Fool’s Gold couldn’t be so stupid.

To understand why, look no further than an earlier element of the future, silicon. You know, the element with which we build the inside of computers and smartphones, solar cells in solar modules and much more. The element that begins life as quartz, but after an extremely energy-intensive refining process, becomes an unrivaled semiconductor. Until now, that is.

“Engineers just can’t make chips run faster because they’re so small and already generate so much heat,” says Chris Leighton, professor at McKnight University, Minnesota University’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, explaining the limitations of silicon. “It is an urgent situation if we want the new generation of iPods or whatever to be better and faster as we are used to. The speed of computing has been flat for years, and we need new basic research if we are to compute faster. “

Having worked in both quantum materials and complex oxides for many years, and only recently decided to step back and see what happens, Leighton is getting rid of basic research silicon in solar panels and replacing it with fool’s gold scientific, according to Leighton He was able to connect dots between quantum materials and iron pyrite. He realized that the fool’s gold would become magnetic if you could cover a few nanometers of iron pyrite with a drop of ionic liquid and then apply an extremely low voltage until the voltage was stopped. It might not sound like a big deal to you, but in scientific circles magnetizing a non-magnetic object is a big deal. Indeed, Leighton’s discovery made great international scientific news – “Who’s the fool now?” asked the Australian science magazine Cosmos – and it is speculated that this is not just great scientific news, but a sweeping revolution in materials science.

Why? For a start, iron pyrite could draw a lot of heat from the computer world – especially from data centers and server farms. Another big advantage? The manufacture and purification of silicon is very energy-intensive. It is estimated that around three and a half pounds of fossil fuels are used per silicon chip.

Oh, and it also turns out that silicon is actually a terrible material to use in building solar cells.

“Pyrite absorbs light 1,000 times better than silicon,” says Leighton. “And it’s 100 times cheaper than the next cheapest we can make solar panels out of.”

Additionally, to make fool’s gold, you need iron, which is abundant, and sulfur, which surrounds many of the world’s oil refineries, as it is a waste by-product of oil exploration.

“What most people probably don’t know about silicon is that we use it for everything because it’s simply one of the best understood materials on the planet,” adds Leighton. “Billions of dollars, hundreds of companies are wrapped in silicon. Even if it’s a square pin in a round hole, it ends up using silicon because we’ve just been using it for so long. “

Fools. If Leighton is right, the whole time the scientists had to look for iron pyrite in the Black Hills next to your child.

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl was born in New York City, unaware of her fate – to live well in Minnesota. Dara writes about food, people, places and now and then things! She has won five James Beard Awards from 13 nominations and three CRMAs.

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January 11, 2021

11:55 a.m.

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