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The National MagLab is funded by the National Science Foundation and the State of Florida.

Good Neighbors Make Good Science

In the Netherlands, researchers double down on new discoveries by boosting the power of high-field magnets with lasers.

Illustration of High Field Magnet Laboratory and FELIX Laboratory

One way scientists study new materials is to expose them to extreme conditions. When they put a sample in a high magnetic field, intense laser light, extreme cold or high pressure, its behavior changes, revealing something new about its properties and what the material could be used for. Sometimes researchers use several of these techniques at once, opening new experimental horizons.

This year scientists got access to a unique combination of instruments when a pair of neighboring labs in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, joined forces, both literally and figuratively.

At the High Field Magnet Laboratory (HFML), scientists place experiments inside high-field magnets. Right next door at the FELIX Laboratory, scientists use free-electron lasers to expose materials to powerful beams of light across a wide range of wavelengths not available anywhere else.

Now these two international facilities, which have long cooperated, are officially under one roof. Thanks to 80 meters of vacuum tubes, beams of precisely controlled photons generated by FELIX's free-electron lasers can be guided right into the center of the magnets at HFML. With this new "twofer" setup, scientists can expose materials to both a uniquely powerful laser and a high magnetic field at the same time, driving matter into exciting and previously inaccessible states and phases.

"We are entering a whole new scientific area," said HFML Director Peter Christianen. "You can actually change the properties of the material."

What kinds of new science will this dynamic duo enable?

"We hope we can realize a new method of data storage, using six to eight times less energy," Christianen said, "or trace the origin of high-temperature superconductivity — a mystery since it was discovered in the 1980s — with the aim of making superconductivity at room temperature a reality."

Of course, Christianen added, "It is impossible to predict what we are going to discover exactly — but it certainly will be interesting."

Story by Marloes Gielen