Magnetic Frustration in Magnetite

Nam Pham '17

The project: Mr. Pham’s science project set out to explore whether a computation model can be used to predict if the magnetization of electronic materials can be controlled without using a magnetic field. His work involved a close analysis of the molecular structure and magnetic properties of the iron ore magnetite (FE304), a naturally occurring magnetic mineral with a crystal structure. His goal was to build a computer program to calculate magnetite’s lowest energy state.

Biggest challenge: “To understand what’s fully going on. I haven’t learned all this stuff in the classroom yet. Even though I’ve had teachers and professors helping me, it’s still a challenge to understand the core material. This is not an easy concept to wrap my head around. I had to learn a lot of new things, such as magnetic spin, and look at quantum physics inside that, too. Also, writing the code has been a challenge because I’ve been using a coding language I’ve never used before. So learning the physics side of it and the computer science side of it, combined, was a really big challenge.”

Surprising discovery. “Finding the optimal energy state of magnetite is really hard. Because there are 24 atoms, there are 2 to the power of 24—a huge number—of possibilities that can happen. Another discovery is I didn’t think the code would be that hard. I followed a general plan, but this is really huge data to work with. And since everything is connected, one careless mistake can upset the entire thing. So I had to be really careful. I’m learning that trying to research something and discover something is really hard. But it’s a really good learning experience for me.”

Tip for future scholars. “Definitely understand what you are presenting. I had to understand the crystal structure. Not just physics, but also chemistry. My chemistry background is not as strong, so I had to do a lot of research. If I knew that beforehand, I’d have done a lot more research building up my chemistry background. I spent a lot of time just researching, so I didn’t have enough time to prove my speculation. Do research on your own and really understand what’s going on, and be able to talk about that with another person.”

From his presentation: Mr. Pham’s project involved examining the molecular structure of magnetite.