MagLab Q&A

This Q&A separates MagLab fact from fiction.

  • What the heck are you guys doing out there? I heard the place is full of 'users'.

    Whoa there. We can assure you nothing illicit is happening out here in Innovation Park. Our users are visiting researchers who conduct their experiments in the lab's high magnetic fields. Users are physicists, biochemists, chemists, engineers and materials scientists, to name a few. They come from universities, other national labs, research institutes and industry, and they bring with them graduate students who likely will one day be users themselves.

    The lab is funded by the National Science Foundation to develop magnets and magnet technologies for use by the national and international scientific community. The NSF pays for the magnets, most often built in our own Resistive Magnet Shop, and for the operation of the magnets. This means the users conduct research on the magnets free of charge so long as they report their results (the Government Performance and Results Act requires this to ensure federally funded organizations such as NSF achieve their program results).

    Potential users apply for magnet time, which is awarded on a competitive basis. Users cover their own travel costs, accommodations and meals while they are here, but the Lab, thanks to NSF, covers the considerable cost of electricity and cryogens. Users also are assisted in their research by Ph.D. support scientists, who help set up and conduct experiments and interpret the results. On occasion, proprietary users – such as oil or pharmaceutical companies – request time on our magnets. These users pay a fee to cover their costs.

  • Ah. I see. But I took a tour of the lab and did not see many of these users. Where are they?

    Although we have eight resistive magnets in our DC Field Facility, only two can run at the same time. And when scientists conduct experiments in our most powerful magnet, the 45-tesla hybrid, it's the only magnet that can run. This has to do with the amount of electricity required to power the magnets. The Hybrid uses 33 megawatts of power, far more than the typical home load of a mere 2 to 4 kilowatts. MagLab engineers are currently designing a new generation magnet called the Series Connected Hybrid that will reach higher field with less power, opening up additional magnet time for users.

    The resistive magnets also run in shifts. So the magnets are running when you are at home eating dinner.

    The superconducting magnets have far more capacity, because once they reach full field, they go and go and go so long as they are kept very cold. Unlike our resistive magnets, our superconducting magnets require virtually no electricity, so their use isn't limited by electrical capacity. Still, you may not see many of these users, because biology and chemistry research in superconducting magnets can be done remotely! Users can simply send in their samples and, thanks to technology, receive the data on their computer virtually anywhere in the world. Still, many biochemists come anyway, because of the rich collaborative environment at the Magnet Lab.

    For some examples of the scientists who come here and the work they do, please see Look Who's at the Lab, a series of scientist profiles.

  • Are your magnets like much larger versions of refrigerator magnets?

    The magnetic fields created at the Magnet Lab are the same kind of field (although much, much stronger) as those created by refrigerator magnets, only our magnets are created differently. The magnets on your fridge are permanent magnets, while electromagnets at the lab are temporary magnets created by a current. How do scientists create these super strong fields?

    All magnetism comes down to electrons. In electromagnets, magnetic fields result from electron flow through a conductor. In the case of permanent magnets, it's the spinning of the electrons that creates magnetism, not their movement through a conducting material.

    Engineers create the temporary magnetic fields used at the Magnet Lab in three ways:

    1. Resistive magnets.  Many of the magnets at the lab are built by placing hundreds of metal plates with a hole in the middle on top of one another. These plates are called Bitter plates after their inventor, Francis Bitter. An electrical current is run though the plates, creating a temporary magnetic field that will stay in place as long as the magnet is supplied with electricity. The big hole in the middle creates a space where the magnetic field is concentrated, and researchers put their samples inside this space. The smaller holes placed in concentric circles throughout the plate are for water to run through; the water helps keeps the magnets cool and running efficiently. You'll often hear these magnets called "resistive" or "powered" magnets.
    2. Superconducting magnets.  A superconducting magnet is also capable of creating very strong fields, but with a different method. For nearly a century, scientists have known that many metals become "superconductors" – meaning they lose all electrical resistance and can conduct electric current endlessly – when exposed to very low temperatures. The application of this knowledge has led to such technological innovations as magnetic-levitation trains and magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI. So what's the catch? In order to create a magnetic field, superconducting magnets must be kept extremely cold with liquid helium.
    3. Hybrid magnets.  A combination of the first two, called a hybrid magnet. A hybrid magnet combines elements of resistive and superconducting magnets. Like the lab's other magnets, a hybrid is a giant cylinder. There's a resistive magnet at the inner core, surrounded by a superconducting magnet.
  • Is it safe for people to tour the lab when the magnets are running?

    Of course it is – or we wouldn't do it! In fact, if you've had an MRI, you've been inside a magnet that is running, although magnets that power MRI machines don't have quite the tesla muscle that the MagLab's magnets do.

    Scientists measure magnetic strength in units called tesla and gauss; one tesla equals 10,000 gauss. Although most of the magnet's field is directed inward and the field dissipates quickly, there is still a fringe field around an energized magnet. When you tour the lab, you'll see painted lines on the floors in the magnet cells. These are called gauss lines. The line our visitors stand behind is a blue "10 gauss" line. As long as you don't go beyond that line (and we make sure you don't) your credit cards, cell phone and other electronics will be fine. (Credit cards store information on magnetic strips; if you got too close, that information could be erased!). You'd also be OK behind the 10 gauss line if you have a metal implant or joint or insulin pump.

    We do ask, however, if anyone in a tour group has a pacemaker. Low intensity fringe field could interfere with the functioning of a pacemaker. To be on the safe side, we cannot allow people with pacemakers to go into the cells when magnets are operating..

    To find out more about tours, visit our Public Tours page.

  • Can you get sucked into a magnet?

    Hopefully, you get the idea from the previous item – that’s not possible! You’ll notice, however, there are no wrenches, screwdrivers or other tools near an energized magnet. Suppose you snuck past the 100 gauss line holding a metal thermos … that might get sucked out of your hand, provided the magnet is running at a high field … but your feet would not leave the ground.

  • I saw on your Web site that you have a 'nuclear magnetic resonance' program. What do you do to protect your employees and people who live near the lab from nuclear radiation?

    Nothing!

    It’s not that we’re callous. It’s just that NMR (the acronym for nuclear magnetic resonance) produces no radiation – at least not the type of radiation you’re probably thinking about.

    First of all, not all radiation is created equal. Much of it is considered relatively harmless – the radiation from your television set, for example, or from natural causes such as cosmic rays. Other types can be deadly.

    Radiation is all around you. It is associated with particles or waves found both in nature as well as in man-made objects: radio waves, microwaves, X-rays, and visible and ultraviolet light.

    These waves are all part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Most waves along this spectrum are relatively low-energy. But higher up the spectrum the particles and waves have more energy – enough to knock the electrons off the atoms and molecules they meet in their paths. This more energetic type is called ionizing radiation, because it ionizes the atoms and molecules (knocks off electrons circling its nuclei), thereby changing them chemically and often resulting in damage (a sunburn, for example, or altered DNA).

    But the type of radiation associated with our NMR machines, and the very powerful magnets that drive them, is non-ionizing radiation – the same stuff that is emitted from your computer and microwave. Unless you are exposed to exceptionally large doses of it, this type of radiation is considered no health threat.

    In fact, NMR has a lot more to do with health care than health risks. That’s because nuclear magnetic resonance is basically the same thing as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a technology that has become a workhorse of diagnostic medicine. But while another diagnostic tool, the X-ray machine, emits ionizing radiation (hence those lead aprons), MRI involves only non-ionizing radiation.

    Legend has it that the only reason the medical test is called “MRI” rather than “NMR” is because the general public misunderstands the term “nuclear,” often conjuring up images of Nagasaki or Chernobyl. Back in the late 1980s, these were not the images the medical establishment wanted to associate with the promising new technique, so the name was changed to the more innocuous sounding “MRI.”

  • I thought the MagLab was going to transform Tallahassee into the next Research Triangle. Why hasn't it done more for economic development in Tallahassee?

    Yeah, we get this a lot. Creating new companies is wonderful, but it's not why the MagLab is in "business." The MagLab's mission, as dictated by the National Science Foundation – the folks who pay most of the bills – is to provide the highest magnetic fields and necessary services for basic scientific research conducted by users from a wide range of disciplines.

    Basic research is a quest to expand the scientific body of knowledge, and it is inextricably linked to virtually all economic growth and quality of life enhancements in this information age. Scientists often do not know how their research will be useful (that's the realm of applied scientists). Nonetheless, basic science is the necessary foundation for the computers, medical devices and pharmaceuticals that often follow.

    That said, the Magnet Lab contributes much to the Tallahassee economy – just not in the way most people think. The Magnet Lab employs more than 350 people and shapes the minds of thousands of students each year, building the intellectual infrastructure of the future. According to a report from the Center for Economic Forecasting and Analysis, for each dollar the state invests in the Magnet Lab between 2005 and 2015, the state will realize a return of $5.50.

    The lab also attracts more than 1,100 visiting scientists (you know, the users) each year – who stay, on average, for about a week. They stay at area hotels, eat at area restaurants and, well, spend money here.

    While the lab does patent its magnet technology, there is not a high consumer demand for unique high-field research magnets – which isn't to say scientists are not entrepreneurially minded. Two former Magnet Lab engineers are behind Tallahassee-based Tai-Yang Research Co. Tai-Yang develops applications for novel materials, including high temperature superconductors, optical fibers and thin films, and in February of 2008 was awarded a $450,000 grant to continue its efforts to build a connector for high-temperature superconductors for use aboard U.S. Navy warships.

  • How does the lab measure success?

    There are a number of ways, chief among them demand for magnet time and publications. There are consistently more requests to use the magnets than time (and power!) available to fill them. Publications resulting from research in the lab's high-field magnets are strong: MagLab research conducted in 2008, for example, resulted in 377 research reports, most of which have been published (some in prominent scientific journals) or are in the process of being published.

  • The images of the different materials under a microscope displayed on the first floor are really cool – but what do they have to do with high field magnets?

    The answer is very little – but that in no way diminishes the contributions of the optical microscopy program. Great science often happens where disciplines and techniques converge. Affiliated research programs such as the optical microscopy and geochemistry programs enhance the lab's rich collaborative environment and lead to novel collaborations. For example, a chance conversation between a visiting physicist and the director of the optical microscopy department led to the development of a new light microscope capable of looking at proteins on a molecular level.

    The geochemistry program combines the MagLab's strengths in detailed characterization of organic mater (obtained with high field magnets) with the geochemistry lab's strength in high-precision trace level and isotope composition analysis. In particular, the geochemistry program collaborates with scientists who specialize in Fourier Transform Ion Cyclotron Resonance mass spectroscopy.

    Scientists in both groups serve as frequent mentors to teachers and students who visit the lab each summer as part of the Research Experiences programs.

  • Do 'health' magnets really work?

    Since scientists aren’t too fond of yes or no answers, the closest thing we can say here is that there’s no solid evidence that "health" magnets – the kind that some people put in their shoes or pillows and wear on wristbands – have any direct medical benefits.

    Companies that sell the magnets claim that they improve conditions ranging from headaches to bedsores to AIDS. Pro athletes have endorsed these magnets, which can be found in many sporting goods stores, drugstores and TV infomercials.

    These companies say that modern-day conveniences like cars and asphalt streets separate us from the Earth’s magnetic field, knocking our bodies, from our circulatory systems to our moods, out of whack. Only by adding magnets to the mix, the companies claim, can our bodies receive the benefits magnetic fields provide.

    But if this theory were true, then a compass wouldn’t work on a city street! The Earth’s magnetic field is all around us, alive and well, and there’s no proven benefit to carrying around pocket-size supplements to that field.

    But there’s always the placebo effect...

  • Some people say that since the Magnet Lab has been built, Tallahassee has gotten less rain. They say they can see the rain going around the city on the weather radar. Can high magnetic fields affect the weather?

    The Magnet Lab does create amazing magnetic fields, some of the highest in the world. What’s important to remember is that those fields are created in an extremely small space. The magnets are heavily insulated and designed to direct energy and strength of field inward (where the experiment is), and some of the high fields created at the lab affect only a few molecules at a time. Even the largest fields we create are present only in a few inches of space, inside a large, well-insulated metal container. Standing 10 feet away from one of these magnets won’t even affect the magnetic strip on the credit card in your pocket – much less the weather patterns in the sky.

    The area around the lab, including the airspace above it, doesn’t have a substantially higher magnetic field than anywhere else. Even if it did, there’s no evidence that a change in magnetic field would affect rainfall. So don’t go asking us to turn on the magnets to redirect hurricanes away from the Panhandle (that has really happened!).

  • Speaking of the weather, how would a major hurricane affect the lab’s magnets?

    The resistive magnets, which use cooled water and electricity to operate, likely would not be structurally damaged, as they would not be operating during a hurricane and don’t store energy. Resistive magnets weigh between 3 and 5 tons; they aren’t going anywhere. But if the lab’s infrastructure was seriously damaged, the resistive magnets would be inoperable. 

  • I heard you have a cryogenics group at the lab. Isn’t cryogenics the study of frozen people?

    Heavens, no. Have you been watching Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery again? Cryogenics is the study of very low temperatures (colder than any place on Earth), how to produce and exploit them, and how materials behave at those temperatures. At the Magnet Lab, cryogenics is very important. Without cryogens (primarily liquid nitrogen and liquid helium), our magnets would not work. We need cryogens to create and run superconducting magnets, and we also use low temperatures to see what happens to certain materials when they go into the mother of all deep freezes.

More Education Resources

For more information on magnetism, electricity and related topics, visit our Magnet Academy, featuring articles written for non-scientists about MRIs, cryogenics and more.

Last modified on 25 August 2016