The discovery was
partly accidental. The researchers were mixing organic
nitrogen-rich compounds with nickel atoms and water.
Normally during such reactions, multiple organic
molecules will attach to each metal ion, so a relatively
small amount of nickel should have been needed. But
Hicks says his postdoc, Rajsapan Jain, noticed that the
chemicals were not completely used up in the reaction,
so they kept adding nickel to see what would happen.
They ended up with a mudlike powder in their test tubes.
The group seems to
have discovered an entirely new route to magnetic
molecules, says experimental physicist Christopher
Landee of Clark University, who was not part of the
team could not determine the exact structure of the
molecules or how they formed, they found that, in this
case, each organic molecule ended up with two nickels.
Hicks says the magnetism probably stems from one lone
(unpaired) electron on the nickel ion, which would
therefore be positively charged, and another on the
organic molecule, giving it a negative charge.
To be magnetic a
molecule has to have isolated electrons, which act like
tiny bar magnets. Normally electrons pair up and cancel
out each other's magnetism, but Hicks says the organic
molecules used in the experiment were selected because
they can tolerate extra electrons.
"It's the first
big step forward in 10 years, and that's what's
encouraging about it," says Landee. "There will be a lot
of chemists going back into the lab."