This definitely ain’t no refrigerator magnet. The new super magnet at The National High Magnetic Field Laboratory weighs more than 15 tons and has a magnetic field 420,000 times that of the Earth’s — strong enough to pull a metal object out of a person’s hand and send it flying — if people were allowed to get close enough.
The laboratory — one of only nine high magnetic field labs in the world — unveiled the new magnet, 13 years in development, on Thursday.
While the use of magnetic fields may not attract the interest of the average person, the new device is a major breakthrough that’s exciting the scientific community and could lead to major advances in medicine, materials research and basic understanding of nature.
“We are extremely excited about the prospects,” said Tim Cross, the lab’s spectroscopy and imaging program director.
It’s not as powerful as another magnet already in operation at the lab, but one thing that has scientists positively charged about the new one is the size of the chamber in which objects are placed to be exposed to the magnetic field.
As things go, it may seem small — just over four inches wide. But as magnets go, that’s enormous — about twice the size of the sample chamber of a standard magnet.
“This magnet is a world record because it has a very high magnetic field over a very large volume, so we’ll be able to study the kinds of materials that can’t be studied in any other magnet around the world,” said Greg Boebinger, the director of the lab.
The $16 million magnet also is more advanced in the stability of the magnetic field — a lack of variation that makes for better experiments, Boebinger said.
And it operates at a high frequency, making for better images in experiments where the magnet is used to essentially take pictures of cells and molecules.
So, what do you do with such a big magnet?
One application might allow scientists to build a better mouse brain. Or at least a better picture of it. When researchers study the brains of mice they use magnetic resonance imaging.
“The advantage is we can use live animals,” said Bill Brey, an assistant scholar-scientist at the lab.
A larger chamber means live mice can be studied — the whole mouse can fit in there rather than just a small part.
And a higher magnetic field means clearer, more detailed pictures of the brain.
The magnet also will enable researchers to look at larger molecules — such as proteins — in more detail.
For example, Cross is studying the structure of one particular protein present in the flu virus. By using the new magnet to define the shape and chemical properties of the protein, a drug that specifically targets it can be developed, he said.
“So a new era of research is being opened up,” Cross said.
Brey said that the magnet will also advance materials research, allowing scientists to better understand the properties of a number of substances used in every day industrial items.