4 April 2016

New life for an old machine

Engineers work to revive the magnetic levitation apparatus. Engineers work to revive the magnetic levitation apparatus. Stephen Bilenky

This week at the lab, engineers are busy refurbishing a one-of-a-kind magnet that drove another set of researchers so crazy they stopped using it a decade ago.

But one scientist's trash is another's treasure, and instead of landing in the dumpster, the 20-year-old, 16 tesla magnet ended up at the MagLab, in the hands of some very patient problem-solvers.

The machine is a magnetic levitation apparatus, specifically designed to levitate drops of liquid helium, an important cryogen that must be extremely cold (at least -452 degrees Fahrenheit, or -269 degrees Celsius) to remain a liquid.

By levitating liquid helium, scientists can study how it behaves in space, where weightless astronauts float and liquids form drops held together by surface tension. By continuously simulating zero gravity, the magnetic levitation apparatus could help scientists understand how to better control liquid fuels in space and how to operate superconducting magnets, which require liquid helium, on space stations.

Saving the complex apparatus from the science graveyard has demanded the tenacity and ingenuity of the lab's Cryogenics Research Group. Postdoctoral researcher Mark Vanderlaan and graduate research assistant Andrew Wray have spent the better part of a year figuring it out without the guidance of the long-lost operational manual.

After months of trial and error learning all the parts and their functions, the MagLab engineers had to deal with another huge problem: finding and plugging dozens of leaks. It was a lot harder than locating holes in a bike tire: Helium is the second smallest atom in the universe.

"It likes to leak out of anything," said Vanderlaan. "It was obvious why the person gave up on it before."

Getting the magnet operational will require a lot more work, but knowing the result could be a unique and valuable tool for both basic and applied research is pretty good motivation.

Photo by Stephen Bilenky, text by Kristen Coyne.

Last modified on 5 April 2016