By KRISTIN ROBERTS
The season of storms is upon us (again) with Subtropical Storm Andrea already earning the notorious first name more than two weeks before the official start date of June 1. Across the East and Gulf coasts, residents are reviewing their preparedness plans and stockpiling supplies in case the cone of uncertainty covers their area.
And here at the National MagLab, we are too. After all, two of our sites are located in hurricane-prone Florida: Our headquarters at Florida State University in Tallahassee and our facilities at the University of Florida in Gainesville. (Our third location at Los Alamos National Lab is well out of hurricane territory in New Mexico). So our staff are updating emergency action plans, lists of key personnel and emergency contact information to save for a rainy day.
Luckily, the MagLab has experts ready to weather any storm.
Facilities Director John Kynoch said the whole lab prepares for hurricanes so we stay safe before, during and after the storms.
"It takes a wide range of people – the safety department, the scientific groups, facilities, communications," Kynoch said. "All these people work together to minimize the impact of a storm."
On our public tours over the past few years, we've had a deluge of questions related to what it's like to run the world's most powerful magnet lab in a region prone to hurricanes. Read on as we open the floodgates for answers.
What does the MagLab do to prepare for a storm?
Just like everyone else in the area, we watch storm paths nervously and cross our fingers that we won't get clobbered.
But in the case of an unfriendly tempest trajectory, we spring into action.
At least four days before a storm threatens MagLab headquarters, leaders from departments across the building meet to discuss the latest storm predictions, communications needs and the status of our generators and our helium supplies, which are critical to operations. The team looks at the storm's forecasted track, predicted intensity and even which day of the week it is projected to hit before making decisions about the appropriate level of preparation. Two days later, a second hurricane preparation meeting is held to reassess the situation and make decisions on if and when to shut down, coordinating closely with FSU's environmental health and safety team and administration.
"Not only are we preparing for the storm to come," said MagLab Safety Director Laymon Gray, "but we're also preparing for how to come back and get the science restarted as quickly and as safely as possible."
What happens when the MagLab loses power?
At MagLab headquarters, we use quite a bit of electricity to power our massive resistive magnets – 56 megawatts, to be exact. That's about 7 percent of the city of Tallahassee's total electrical capabilities, or enough to power about 28,000 homes.
So when the power stops, so does the science.
And generally at the MagLab, the power does keep kicking. With a substation just a block up the street feeding power via underground lines right into the lab's four power supplies (each one the size of a box car), we generally enjoy stable, reliable power, even in the eye of some storms.
The MagLab didn't lose power during Hurricane Hermine in 2016, a Category 1 storm that took out 114,000 of the city's customers, nor the next year when Irma, (a Category 5 whopper that petered to a tropical storm by the time it reached Tallahassee) put more than 40,000 local customers in the dark.
But just because the lab has power doesn't mean it's open for science. Before hurricanes Hermine and Irma hit, the lab shut down its power-hungry magnets in anticipation of possible interruptions, then kept them off for a week.
"Our lab is a part of the Tallahassee community," Kynoch said. "So when the city needs our power supply to help restore our neighbors' power, we stay shut down."
Last year, Hurricane Michael left nearly the entire city of Tallahassee powerless, including the MagLab. The lab's power stayed off for four days.
"When you understand that you can't always expect to have power, you realize that you need to plan for it not to be there," Kynoch said.
At the MagLab, that plan includes two 750-kilowatt generators. And while these generators are about 100 times larger than what you could buy at the home improvement store, they don't come close to what we need to run most of our powerful magnets.
However, they do keep important safety systems running, including emergency lighting, fire alarms, exhaust fans and important pumps required to operate our superconducting magnets (more on that in a minute). And by planning thoughtfully and taking non-critical systems offline, the lab's team can make a three-day supply of gas last up to a week. That extra generator time could make a big difference if fuel is in short supply and roads are closed.
Do the lab's superconducting magnets work in a storm?
In addition to its power-hungry resistive magnets, the MagLab is houses an impressive fleet of superconducting magnets, including the 900 MHz system, the world’s strongest MRI machine. These instruments don’t need to be plugged in to run. After an initial charge, they can conduct electricity without resistance, but only when kept at very cold temperatures (around -450 degrees Fahrenheit or -267 degrees Celsius) with cryogens liquid helium and liquid nitrogen.
If not kept frigid, these magnets risk being damaged. So the vacuum pumps that keep cold liquid helium and nitrogen flowing to them are one of the lab's top priorities. Even outside hurricane season, these pumps remain hooked up to generators in case of an unexpected power outage.
"What you don't want to have happen is for the pumps to stop, which would cause the magnet to warm up and stop the superconductor from working," Kynoch explained. "Then it might take two or three months to cool it back down."
During normal operations, the MagLab receives deliveries of helium and nitrogen a couple of times a week. But during a storm, deliveries may be compromised by downed trees, flooded roads and tangled traffic. Lab personnel keep in close contact with cryogen suppliers to ensure that we can keep cool under pressure and maintain a continuous supply.
What happens to the scientists visiting the MagLab to conduct their research?
More than 2,000 scientists from around the world visit the MagLab every year to conduct their research, and many of them have never experienced a hurricane. MagLab staffers take pains to keep them updated with the latest news and, of course, to keep them safe if they're in town when a hurricane hits.
"Typically, three days before potential impact, the lab will let scientists know that operations may be disrupted," explained Tim Murphy, head of the lab's largest magnet facility. "Two days out, if it looks like we're going to catch part of the storm, we will stop operations, send visiting scientists home and cancel the next week's operations to keep everyone safe."
After three storms in three years, what have you learned?
With a surge of storms impacting the area over the past few years, MagLab staffers have had a lot of hurricane practice and feel better prepared than ever.
"The past three years have really sharpened our skills," said Murphy. "I think we've gotten much better at what we do after the hurricane passes: assessing the situation, assessing the facility, what capabilities do we have, and making sure people don't come back until things are safe."
The special attachment employees feel to the lab, come rain or come shine, is one of the MagLab's secret strengths during storm season, added Kynoch.
"There are a lot of people who really feel a lot of ownership of this place and want to make it better," he said.
I've heard that the magnets at the MagLab can help redirect hurricanes. Is there any truth to that?
Rumors about our magnets' effect on the weather swirl almost as fiercely as hurricane-force winds.
"When hurricanes come," Murphy said, "we've had people ask us to turn on our magnets or reverse the field to move the storm."
The fact is, these strong fields are confined to an extremely small space inside the magnet where scientists put samples to study. Outside of the magnet, the field is actually quite weak, and tapers off to zero within just a few feet for most of our magnets. So – sorry, but we have absolutely no impact on weather patterns or hurricane paths!
And if you're wondering where that MagLab weather rumor started, we haven't the foggiest!