Programmable magnets: more useful than you might think

The new rules of attraction



At first glance, magnets, whether they’re the little ones stuck to your fridge or the big ones hoisting cars at the junkyard, seem to have one simple trick: sticking to metal surfaces.

Alabama-based Correlated Magnetics Research, however, is making magnets that do much more. The company has developed a machine that uses electricity to print the magnetic equivalent of pixels on a surface—complex patterns of north and south polarity points—allowing precise control over the topology of the magnetic fields. This allows these “programmable magnets” to interact with each other in novel, and potentially highly useful, ways.

For instance, two magnets can be designed to attract each other at a distance but stop short of touching, and hover with a gap between them. An opposite design has the magnets snap together when forced into close range but repel at a distance. The programmed magnetic fields can also interlock like teeth in an invisible gear, allowing one magnet to control the movement of another without touching it, drastically reducing friction in mechanical applications.

“We like to say we’re a law-abiding company—we obey the laws of physics,” jokes Ron Jewell, VP of sales and marketing.

The uses, Jewell says, could benefit a number of industries. Because of the magnets’ super strength—each one can support about five times the weight of a standard magnet—the designs could be used on a truck to tow heavy loads, for instance. And they offer a safety advantage, in that the programmed magnets won’t attract “unprogrammed” metal objects.

Founded by inventor Larry Fullerton, Correlated Magnetics holds 85 patents on processes and designs, and is working on applications in everything from aerospace to medicine to home-building, and has drawn the interest of the U.S. Navy and NASA. The company says it plans to work with manufacturers, and can program any solid magnetic substance, including rare earth–based magnets, ceramics and even flexible materials.