Neodymium is a metal which is ferromagnetic (more specifically it shows antiferromagnetic properties), meaning that like iron it can be magnetized to become a magnet, but its Curie temperature (the temperature above which its ferromagnetism disappears) is 19 K (−254.2 °C; −425.5 °F), so in pure form its magnetism only appears at extremely low temperatures. However, compounds of neodymium with transition metals such as iron can have Curie temperatures well above room temperature, and these are used to make neodymium magnets.
The strength of neodymium magnets is the result of several factors. The most important is that the tetragonal Nd2Fe14B crystal structure has exceptionally high uniaxial magnetocrystalline anisotropy (HA ≈ 7 T – magnetic field strength H in units of A/m versus magnetic moment in A·m2). This means a crystal of the material preferentially magnetizes along a specific crystal axis but is very difficult to magnetize in other directions. Like other magnets, the neodymium magnet alloy is composed of microcrystalline grains which are aligned in a powerful magnetic field during manufacture so their magnetic axes all point in the same direction. The resistance of the crystal lattice to turning its direction of magnetization gives the compound a very high coercivity, or resistance to being demagnetized.
The neodymium atom can have a large magnetic dipole moment because it has 4 unpaired electrons in its electron structure as opposed to (on average) 3 in iron. In a magnet it is the unpaired electrons, aligned so they spin in the same direction, which generate the magnetic field. This gives the Nd2Fe14B compound a high saturation magnetization (Js ≈ 1.6 T or 16 kG) and a remnant magnetization of typically 1.3 teslas. Therefore, as the maximum energy density is proportional to Js2, this magnetic phase has the potential for storing large amounts of magnetic energy (BHmax ≈ 512 kJ/m3 or 64 MG·Oe). This magnetic energy value is about 18 times greater than “ordinary” ferrite magnets by volume and 12 times by mass. This magnetic energy property is higher in NdFeB alloys than in samarium cobalt (SmCo) magnets, which were the first type of rare-earth magnet to be commercialized. In practice, the magnetic properties of neodymium magnets depend on the alloy composition, microstructure, and manufacturing technique employed.
The Nd2Fe14B crystal structure can be described as alternating layers of iron atoms and a neodymium-boron compound. The diamagnetic boron atoms do not contribute directly to the magnetism but improve cohesion by strong covalent bonding. The relatively low rare earth content (12% by volume) and the relative abundance of neodymium and iron compared with samarium and cobalt makes neodymium magnets lower in price than samarium-cobalt magnets.