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Synthetic garnets made by Chancellor Wiley displayed at Geology Museum

July 24, 2007 By Jill Sakai

In a small, freestanding case near the entrance of the University of Wisconsin–Madison Geology Museum, you might notice a familiar name next to two faintly yellow gems.

"Gadolinium Gallium Garnets," the card reads. "Donor: John Wiley, 2007."

The unassuming bell-shaped crystals, which Wiley donated to the geology department this April, offer a glimpse into now-Chancellor Wiley‘s pre-UW days. He made the two synthetic garnets in the early 1970s while working as an engineer at the storied Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey.

While people may be most familiar with the deep red of a common natural form of garnet, synthetic garnets can be any color of the rainbow, Wiley says. Color and other properties are dictated by their component metals, which often include trace elements that are too scarce to produce crystals naturally.

Such elements can impart desirable traits, such as magnetic properties. Wiley and his colleagues at Bell Labs worked to develop methods for growing perfect synthetic garnets with an eye toward using them in an application called "bubble memory," a data-storage method based on patterns of tiny magnetic spots.

"Magnetic garnets had properties that lend themselves to bubble memory," Wiley explains. In addition, he says, it is possible to grow large perfect garnets, free of common physical imperfections that would preclude their practical use. "I can’t think of any other material you could do this in."

Wiley kept two of his gadolinium gallium garnets for years as mementos of his work at Bell Labs. One even bears a small metal cap so it could be used as a keychain, though, as he explains, it is dense – almost as dense as iron – and far too heavy to be practical.

Recently, he ran into geology professor John Valley at the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the two struck up a conversation that turned to crystals and their properties.

"John still gets very interested in the science of crystals and how they can be used," Valley says.

Shortly afterward, Wiley gave his two synthetic garnets to the geology department, thinking their unique properties could be used in a lab demonstration. Valley and geology museum director Rich Slaughter were worried that the crystals could be destroyed or lost, or that their origin might be forgotten. "Rich and I didn’t want that to happen," says Valley.

Instead, they entered Wiley’s garnets into the museum collection, where they now accompany a colorful assortment of cut and polished synthetic garnets containing a range of rare elements.

"In their natural state, if pure enough, they can be clear like diamond or glass," Wiley says, but his specimens contain slight impurities that tint them a pale gold.

The garnets can be viewed at the Geology Museum in Weeks Hall during the museum’s regular hours, Monday through Friday 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Saturday 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Tags: geology, learning