Every year, more than 1,400 scientists use the lab's magnets to explore new, exotic materials – and what they discover could just change the way we live.
One of the most promising materials MagLab scientists are studying is graphene, a substance found right in the flakes of your lead pencil. Some say graphene might one day be used to make everything from computer screens to airplanes.
Scientists want to know how graphene – a one-atom thick, honeycomb array of carbon atoms so thin it's virtually see-through – reacts to light and different magnetic fields. To find out, they put a sample of graphene inside a powerful magnet. Then they observe what happens when the graphene is subjected to different forces: electric currents, magnetic-field strengths and wavelengths of light.
Chun Ning "Jeanie" Lau, an associate physics professor at the University of California at Riverside, travels more than 2,000 miles to do graphene research at the Magnet Lab.
"Graphene is such a beautiful and unique material," Lau says. "It's stronger than steel yet softer than silk. It's transparent like plastic, but conducts heat and electricity better than copper. It's the thinnest single-atomic-layer elastic membrane that's also a conductor and in which electrons 'lose' their mass. It's a Nobel-winning material but is produced by every school kid every day."
Other MagLab scientists are fascinated with graphene, too, including condensed matter physicists Dimitry Smirnov and Zhiqianq "Jason" Li, and postdoctoral associate Jean-Marie Poumirol.
"A lot of companies are trying to do research to make graphene commercial," Li says. "One of the first applications could be a large area display … television, computer, maybe billboard."
That's one reason scientists want to know how this material interacts with different kinds of light. One way to discover that is to shoot laser beams at a graphene sample.
Researchers also want to find out how the electrons in graphene behave in the presence of magnetic fields. To generate a magnetic field, scientists send an electric current through a wire coil, then observe the variations of the graphene's resistance.
Curious to see what a graphene experiment at the lab actually looks like? See the step-by-step of this graphene experiment that was carried out in Lab 3 of the Resistive Magnet Wing. Lab 3 has a special magnet that allows scientists to shoot laser beams at their sample.