The first ferrite magnet was accidentally discovered in 1950, in a Physics laboratory belonging to the Philips Industries research department, in the Netherlands. An assistant synthesised it by mistake–he was supposed to prepare a different sample for its study as a semiconductor material. It was found that it actually had magnetic properties, and so it was passed on to the magnetic research group. Because of its good performance as a magnet and its low production cost, it was developed as a product by Philips, marking the start of a rapid increase in the use of permanent magnets.
During the 1960s, the first rare earth magnets were developed, made from alloys of lanthanides, scandium or yttrium. They were the strongest type of permanent magnets made, combining a high saturation magnetisation with a good resistance to demagnetisation. In spite of their cost, brittleness, and inefficacy in high temperatures, they started dominating the market as their applications became more relevant–for instance, ownership of personal computers started to become widespread in the 80s, which meant a high demand of permanent magnets for hard drives.
Recently, sustainability in industry processes has become a priority, and rare earth elements have been deemed critical raw materials by the European Commission, because of their high supply risk and economic importance. This has opened the field for research on new rare-earth-free permanent magnets. One of the possible lines of research is to look back on the first permanent magnets developed, ferrite magnets, and study them further using all the new tools and methods that have become available in the last few decades. Several organisations are now funding projects to pursue this new lines of research, such as the European Commission itself, the US Department of Energy, and the National Science Foundation; with the hope that rare earth magnets can be substituted by a greener, more efficient alternative.