The Magnetocaloric Effect
The magnetocaloric effect (MCE, from magnet and calorie) is a magneto-thermodynamic phenomenon in which a temperature change of a suitable material is caused by exposing the material to a changing magnetic field. This is also known by low temperature physicists as adiabatic demagnetization. In that part of the refrigeration process, a decrease in the strength of an externally applied magnetic field allows the magnetic domains of a magnetocaloric material to become disoriented from the magnetic field by the agitating action of the thermal energy (phonons) present in the material. If the material is isolated so that no energy is allowed to (re)migrate into the material during this time, (i.e., an adiabatic process) the temperature drops as the domains absorb the thermal energy to perform their reorientation. The randomization of the domains occurs in a similar fashion to the randomization at the curie temperature of a ferromagnetic material, except that magnetic dipoles overcome a decreasing external magnetic field while energy remains constant, instead of magnetic domains being disrupted from internal ferromagnetism as energy is added.
One of the most notable examples of the magnetocaloric effect is in the chemical element gadolinium and some of its alloys. Gadolinium’s temperature increases when it enters certain magnetic fields. When it leaves the magnetic field, the temperature drops. The effect is considerably stronger for the gadolinium alloy (Gd5Si2Ge2). Praseodymium alloyed with nickel (PrNi5) has such a strong magnetocaloric effect that it has allowed scientists to approach to within one milliKelvin, one thousandth of a degree of absolute zero.