What's New at the Lab

There's a lot going on at the National MagLab. In this blog, we keep you up to date on the latest people, events and advances at our seven facilities.

Scientists are welcoming a new MRI machine at the National MagLab that provides the best spatial resolution available for human imaging, making it a powerful tool for nationwide, multi-site health research.

Manufactured by Siemens, the state-of-the-art, whole-body scanner is powered by a 3-tesla magnet (tesla is a unit of magnetic field strength). But it's not the machine’s main magnetic field — on a par with many hospital MRIs — that makes the instrument special. Rather, the unit features the most powerful gradient magnet fields available, which help generate very sharp images of very tiny anatomical structures.

“Gradients provide the high spatial resolution in MRI, and with the new system we get the localization we need for small structures,” said Joanna Long, director of the MagLab's Advanced Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Spectroscopy (AMRIS) facility at the University of Florida, where the new instrument is located.

For anyone who has been inside an MRI machine, the gradient magnetic fields are responsible for that unpleasant racket you hear; technicians trigger them to target different areas of the body. But they also help generate more precise images – in this case, around a millimeter in resolution, allowing scientists to see bundles of neurons inside the brain. (Learn more about how MRI machines work).

As one of a number of similar machines recently installed around the country, the new system will enable researchers working at AMRIS to participate in large-scale, multi-site health studies. For example, some AMRIS researchers are using the machine as part of a years-long study to track brain cognitive development in adolescents. Others will use it for research on Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disorders. Glenn Walter, an associate professor in physiology and functional genomics at the University of Florida, is using it to develop MRI techniques to assess how effective drugs are at treating muscular dystrophy, a less invasive approach than muscle biopsy.

By allowing MagLab users to participate in such longitudinal studies, the $3 million system will yield high research dividends. “It's a really good example of how the magnetic resonance research program at the MagLab can leverage something bigger,” Long said.

To celebrate a trio of recent upgrades, including the new MRI machine, added dynamic nuclear polarization capabilities, and a new console for the 11-tesla MRI/S system, AMRIS hosted a reception and symposium this week.

Text by Kristen Coyne; Image courtesy of AMRIS.

The National MagLab is known for its world-record magnets, like the 45-tesla hybrid magnet — the strongest on the planet.

But for some physics experiments, there’s another critical ingredient to good results: extremely cold temperatures. And thanks to a fancy cooling machine called the portable dilution refrigerator (dil fridge, or PDF, for short), the National MagLab is able to offer a potent combination of experimental conditions unique in the world.

This month, the PDF is set up in one of our magnets, allowing scientists to observe what happens to materials when they are under magnetic fields as high as 35 teslas and at temperatures just above absolute zero (-459 degrees Fahrenheit or -273 degrees Celsius).

Leveraging the cooling power of liquid helium, the PDF removes thermal energy from the materials the researchers are studying. “This allows scientists to see the physical properties of materials, such as quantized energy states and quantum phase transitions,” said MagLab physicist Hongwoo Baek, who is in charge of the apparatus.

“If you add magnetic fields,” Baek continued, “you will also see magnetic properties, such as magnetic phase transitions, and other detailed electronic features that are not normally shown at zero field, that can be utilized in future electronics and applications.”

The National MagLab is the only place scientists can throw that one-two punch of very high fields and very low temperatures.

“Many institutes have 20-millikelvin dilution refrigerators, and some have 35-tesla magnets,” said Baek, “but none of them can provide the experimental platform with 20 millikelvin and 35- to 45-tesla magnet together.”

The MagLab system offers another big bonus: it can rotate samples within the magnetic field without generating much heat, allowing the sample to align to the magnetic field and stay nice and cold.

Over the next few weeks, research groups from Rice University, Princeton University, Northwestern University, the University of Cambridge and the MagLab will conduct experiments in this unique setup, studying phenomena ranging from the fractional quantum Hall states to exotic magnetic phase transitions of various materials.

Find out more ...


Text by Kristen Coyne. Photo by Stephen Bilenky.

In a well-run library, an authoritative "Sssshhhh!!" will quiet things down in a jiffy.

At the MagLab, we value our quiet time, too — especially in the Millikelvin Facility, home to some of our most sensitive equipment and experiments. But we need more than a pursed-lipped librarian: We need a building designed from top to bottom to shield its magnets from the noise of external electromagnetic (EM) radiation.

And we're about to get it. We recently broke ground on an extension to the existing Millikelvin Facility, currently home to three superconducting magnets that scientists use for experiments at ultra-low temperatures.

The 1,640-square-foot addition will house two new superconducting magnets, including the much-anticipated 32 tesla all-superconducting magnet. Designed and built at the MagLab, the 32 T will shatter existing records for field strength in superconducting magnets when it comes online later this year.

The design of the $1.2-million Millikelvin addition reflects the many lessons learned from two decades operating the existing facility, said MagLab Facility Director John Kynoch. The walls of the windowless structure will include a layer of copper, effectively creating an EM radiation-blocking Faraday cage. The magnets will be positioned safely below ground, surrounded by concrete reinforced with non-magnetic rebar. The extension's high-quality electrical grounds will be separate from the main building.

Even the LED lighting and air conditioning are designed to minimize noise, air currents and temperature fluctuations that could disturb finicky experiments, said Tim Murphy, who oversees Millikelvin as director of the DC Field Facility.

"If your building temperature swings wildly," said Murphy, "you can see that in your data."

Years in the planning, the addition is designed not just to house magnets, but to do science.

"We're treating the building as part of the instrument," said Murphy, "not just some place you put the instrument."

The new building is slated for completion in the spring of 2017.


Text by Kristen Coyne. Photo by Stephen Bilenky.

Hundreds of scientists work at the National MagLab, and you'll often find them conducting experiments or working in their offices. But with the start of a new academic year, many are now in the classroom, teaching the next generation of scientists and engineers at Florida State University (FSU), the University of Florida (UF) and the Florida A&M University/FSU College of Engineering.

Teaching is a big part of the MagLab's mission. In fact, more than 200 of our top-notch scientists hold faculty appointments, about half of whom, including physicist Irinel Chiorescu (pictured above), teach formal classes on campus.

"The act of teaching is intrinsically connected to research," explained Chiorescu, who is showing students how to "think like a scientist" in his FSU physics lab this semester. "If we teach our students well, we will have top scientists in the future."

It's not all about making the students better, however. Teaching makes Chiorescu a better scientist — and a better science communicator.

"Teaching gives the opportunity to put research topics into a different perspective, adapted to undergraduate students," said Chiorescu. "This not only attracts bright undergrads to our research group, but helps me bring clarity to manuscripts and presentations about our work."

MagLab faculty also teach outside the classroom, advising the more than 300 undergrads, grad students and postdocs who conduct research right here at the lab. Although the environment is different, the benefit to both the teacher and the teached is the same.

"I really enjoy getting different aspects from students and postdocs," said MagLab spectroscopist Riqiang Fu, who has advised many early-career chemists and biologists in his career at the lab. "It widens my view towards any problems and allows me to design experiments from different perspectives."


Text by Kristen Coyne. Photo by Stephen Bilenky.

This week at the lab, our renewal proposal takes center stage in a sort of science version of the TV show "America's Got Talent."

It's all part of the peer-review process for the lab's upcoming five-year renewal grant, which will continue to provide financial support for high magnetic field research from 2018 through 2022.

But instead of singing or stand-up comedy, our scientists will be performing PowerPoint Presentations and tours focused on world-record instruments, unique measurement techniques, research output and plans for the future of the National MagLab.

A panel of 17 scientific experts from around the world will play the roles of Simon Cowell and Heidi Klum, providing support and feedback during the multi-day site visit meeting hosted by the National Science Foundation – the primary funding source for the lab.

After site visit, the renewal proposal will continue to receive more reviews in the next rounds with a finale episode scheduled for sometime in mid-2017.


Text by Kristin Roberts. Image by Caroline McNiel.