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In order for iron to be made into something useful, it must first be melted. This is a crucial step in the metallurgical process that blacksmiths and metalworkers use, in which the element’s melting temp of 1538 degrees Celsius is applied to form the ductile and malleable material that can be shaped into hammers and anvils, or poured into molds for casting into new shapes.
However, it’s not just the melting temperature that matters; how atoms are arranged and their magnetism also play a big role. That’s why graduate student Lisa Mauger and her team at the ESRF have been turning up the heat on their quest to understand what makes iron special.
To this end, they studied how the melting of iron changes its properties by comparing its structural dynamics at high and low temperatures, specifically looking at how it reorganizes its atoms. As the temperature goes up, solids store energy in tiny vibrations that create disorder, or entropy. For iron, the largest source of entropy is atomic vibrations, which can change the way that its magnetic properties are distributed.
The results of the study, published in Physical Review B, show that at low temperatures (below 912 degrees Celsius), iron’s atoms are in an unusually loosely packed open arrangement. As the temperature rises, they get closer and closer until, at around 1,394 degrees Celsius, they start to loosen up again before eventually melting when the temperature hits 1,538 degrees Celsius.