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The National High Magnetic Field Laboratory

Record-breaking 'MagLab' offers unparalleled research environment for thousands of scientists

Lauren Everett

Lauren Everett is the managing editor for Lab Manager. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from SUNY New Paltz and has more than a decade of experience in news...

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The National High Magnetic Field Laboratory (MagLab) has an impressive resume—it holds 16 world records, encompasses three facilities located throughout the US that are home to one-of-a-kind instruments and magnets, and attracts more than 1,400 visiting scientists each year. But as Gregory Boebinger, director of the MagLab, states, “This really is the kind of facility you have to see to believe. Everything is bigger than you could imagine.”

The MagLab headquarters at Florida State University in Tallahassee features a 370,000-sq.-ft. complex with approximately 300 faculty, staff, and graduate and postdoctoral students who are constantly at work. The two other branches of the lab are located at the University of Florida in Gainesville and the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico.

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The lab focuses on four main objectives: develop user facilities and services for magnetrelated research; advance magnet technology in cooperation with industry; promote a multidisciplinary research environment and administer an in-house research program that uses and advances the facilities; and develop an educational outreach program.

“In order to run successfully, we need to have an inhouse research component. We make sure our in-house expertise—whether it be engineering, technical, or scientific— is always dovetailing with the existing and future directions of new science that our users would like to pursue,” explains Boebinger. And the unifying theme that attracts such a large number of scientists from all types of disciplines is high magnetic fields.

The MagLab is the only high magnetic field user facility with such a robust scope of magnets in the US. Having access to this type of facility is vital to pioneering new avenues of research across a variety of applications. The MagLab provides the extreme environments needed to better understand how materials will behave in more ordinary situations.

“High magnetic fields are an incredibly versatile tool throughout many of the physical sciences, from physics to engineering to biology to medicine, and we essentially provide unique high magnetic field facilities for research across all those disciplines,” says Boebinger.

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As Boebinger explains, high magnetic fields have been key in understanding so many new technologies, devices, and materials, such as commonly used LEDS as well as the ongoing development of next-generation LEDs. High magnetic fields were also imperative to understanding the fastest transistors in the world. “Even though you don’t use these materials with high magnetic field[s], you need the high magnetic field to act as a microscope to understand how the properties work and how to improve the materials to develop the technology,” says Boebinger.

One-of-a-kind equipment

The MagLab features dozens of different types of magnets, including permanent magnets, electromagnets, and resistive magnets. Among its 16 world records, the MagLab has the world’s strongest magnet and the world’s largest. The main facility at FSU uses 7 percent of the power of the city of Tallahassee to operate its resistive magnets. The lab uses 56 million watts to push 2,000 gallons of water through the lab’s magnets every minute. Without the consistent cool water flow, the magnets would melt in a fraction of a second. Additionally, the Los Alamos branch of the lab is home to the largest motor in the country. It looks like any other motor, except it’s 50 yards long, the shaft is one yard in diameter, and half a million pounds rotate at high speed to store energy. The motor generator, which is used to pulse a single magnet to create a high magnetic field for a fraction of a second, could generate 1.4 billion watts on its own if it were connected to the electrical power grid. For perspective, that equates to roughly two-thirds of the capacity of the Hoover Dam.

The lab’s capabilities have roughly doubled since 2004, when Boebinger stepped into the role of director. He credits some of that growth to high magnetic field data becoming increasingly popular and essential in all types of research. Chemistry, biochemistry, and biomedicine are three areas where high magnetic field data has proved to be especially useful.

One example is within MRI technology. Researchers are developing new methods to better identify whether a certain type of chemotherapy will be effective in killing cancerous tumors while also limiting the side-effect damage to patients. Currently, MRIs have been exploited to image only hydrogen in the body. “But if you have high magnetic fields, you can start to look at sodium, chlorine, phosphorus, etc.,” says Boebinger. With sodium, for example, you can tell whether cells are going to die because a cell takes up and accumulates sodium before it dies. So, imagine being able to give a patient a small dose of chemotherapy—enough to test whether it will work but not enough to cause side effects—and image the sodium to see if the tumor lights up. If so, then a larger dose of chemotherapy will likely be effective in killing the tumor cells.

“This is one huge and obvious application for highfield magnetic resonance imaging. But you need higherfield magnets. So MagLab’s materials and engineering groups are working to develop high-temperature superconducting magnets. These will revolutionize any application of high magnetic fields, and in particular, types of magnets used in doctors’ offices and hospitals for MRIs,” explains Boebinger. “We develop the materials that go into the next-generation magnets and the magnets themselves, and we pursue the science ranging all the way from physics to biomedicine.”

Pushing science forward

Running a lab of this size and magnitude certainly comes with its own unique set of challenges. “The breadth of science done here is exciting and continues to grow with time. There’s always a new frontier to explore,” says Boebinger. But simply keeping track of all the work and experiments going on can be daunting. Boebinger’s philosophy is to “hire the most talented people we can, give them the resources they need, and get out of their way.” But each of these three steps can be a challenge on its own.

The MagLab has entered its 24th year as a user program facility, and with that length of operation time comes some major equipment upkeep. The facilities are primarily funded through the National Science Foundation, as well as through the Department of Energy and the state of Florida. Boebinger notes that the team plans to upgrade some of its aging instruments this year, as well as replace power supplies and some of the infrastructure that moves the cooling water around the magnets.

“I feel like we’re moving from young-adult years to midlife, where we’re really hitting our stride, but our joints are starting to creak and our hair is turning gray and falling out. Fortunately, we have folks stepping in to help update and rejuvenate that infrastructure.”

The 32 Tesla magnet is the world’s most powerful superconducting magnet and 8.5 times stronger than the previous record holder.The 32 Tesla magnet is the world’s most powerful superconducting magnet and 8.5 times stronger than the previous record holder. The 36 Tesla Series Connected Hybrid Magnet, now in operation, is designed to achieve high homogeneity while using half the power of a resistive magnet.
The 41.4-tesla instrument, a world-record magnet, seen connected to cooling water pipes. Gregory Boebinger, director of MagLab.All photos courtesy of MagLab.