Federal grant to fund new tools for biology research in high magnetic fields

Combining tremendous strength with a high-quality field, the MagLab’s newest instrument promises big advances in interdisciplinary research.

This week at the lab, a prosaic-looking box is being prepared to assume a very exciting job this summer as a key component to a scientific time machine.

Although researchers won't be able to use the approximately 4-foot-high box to travel to other eras, they will use it to get a tantalizing glimpse of science in the future.

Delivered to the lab last week from Switzerland, the "box" is in fact a one-of-a-kind console specifically designed and built by Bruker Corp. for a new, one-of-a-kind instrument, the MagLab's 36 tesla series connected hybrid (SCH) magnet. Due to come online in a few months, the SCH will offer the highest magnetic fields in the world for nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) research. With an operating frequency of 1.5 gigahertz, it will be one and a half times stronger than any other NMR magnet, said Ilya Litvak, who is coordinating the NMR instrumentation for the new magnet.

The MagLab already has numerous magnets for NMR, used to study the structure of molecules by interacting with the nuclei of atoms such as hydrogen, nitrogen and carbon. What's special about the new magnet is that, operating at 1.5 gigahertz, it will allow scientists to efficiently target so-called "low-gamma" nuclei such as oxygen, which are too hard to see at conventional NMR field strengths, opening up a whole new frontier for scientific exploration.

"In the two areas where structure is important, biological research and materials, you have a lot of oxygen," said Litvak. "Currently, scientists cannot use oxygen in NMR efficiently."

A Bruker engineer is testing the new console with another magnet while construction on the SCH magnet is completed. In NMR experiments, the console receives and records the signals sent to it by the probe, which holds the sample inside the magnet.

Text by Kristen Coyne, photo by Stephen Bilenky.

This week at the lab, MagLab engineer Jason Kitchen is soldering into place capacitors smaller than a grain of rice to build a one-of-a-kind probe destined for a very large one-of-a-kind magnet.

The magnet in question is the series connected hybrid magnet due to be commissioned this summer at the MagLab. The 36 tesla instrument will generate world-record magnetic fields that will be used primarily for nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) experiments.

Kitchen is helping to build three probes that scientists will use to insert their specimens — including biological samples such as proteins and material samples such as lithium electrolytes to research better batteries — into the magnet.

Kitchen is currently at work on a cross polarization magic angle spinning probe that will spin biological samples inside the magnet at almost 40,000 times a second. He is building a set of tuning cards that can be quickly inserted and removed from the probe, allowing scientists to easily change from studying one combination of isotopes to another during experiments. This work involves painstakingly soldering teeny radio frequency components onto small PC boards and testing them to make sure they are in the exact spot that will produce the clearest signal for the scientist.

"When a chemist wants to change the probe to work at different frequencies, it's just a simple matter for us to slide in two tuning cards," said Kitchen.

Photo and text by Kristen Coyne.

This week at the lab started for Safety Director Kyle Orth the same way it does every Monday: a powwow with the engineers and technicians building the lab's 36-tesla series connected hybrid magnet.

"Every Monday morning we go through the work that's going be done during the week, so we can identify the hazards that would be associated with that work and what needs to be done to mitigate those hazards."

This week that work includes removing some of the 5,000-lb. iron scaffolding used during the construction of the system that is no longer needed. Because this work involves clambering 20 feet above a concrete floor, workers must wear fall protection, hard hats and safety glasses. In addition, workers who will be inside the bore of the magnet will take precautions associated with being in a confined space, including carrying a multi-gas meter that sounds an alarm if the oxygen level dips too low.

The process is called integrated safety management, or ISM. Prior to any work that is potentially hazardous, MagLab employees review the situation and make plans for ensuring the job is done safely. Regular lab-wide meetings and posters hung throughout the facility also contribute to building a culture of safety at the lab.

Orth and other members of the safety department guide MagLab staff through ISM reviews about a dozen times a week, and groups like the SCH team start every day with a safety meeting. The team will continue those daily reviews until the new magnet, expected to break the record for field homogeneity for a high-field magnet, is completed early next year.

"It's the ISM process at the grassroots level, where it's actually being implemented," Orth said.

Video by Stephen Bilenky / Text by Kristen Coyne

Homogeneous magnets make data clearer for scientists. The MagLab has some of the most homogeneous magnets in the world.

The Series Connected Hybrid magnet that is under fabrication at the NHMFL will utilize current leads containing high temperature superconductor to deliver 20 kA with low heat loads to the helium circuit. The leads have been successfully tested and are ready for installation into the magnet system.

To get millions of watts of electricity into our magnets, we need a couple of these.

In November 2016, the MagLab successfully tested a 36 tesla series connected hybrid (SCH) magnet that breaks the record for field homogeneity for a high-field magnet, will enable new science with a magnetic field that is both very high and very stable, and will operate much more cheaply than comparable magnets.

In 2014, MagLab completed the world's strongest magnet for neutron scattering for the Helmholtz Centre Berlin (HZB).

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