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15 April 2015

Looking back, moving forward

The National MagLab looks back on two decades and offers a glimpse into the future.


Brazil was the World Cup winner, a dozen eggs cost 86 cents and people everywhere were quoting Forrest Gump's philosophy that "life is like a box of chocolates." 1994 brought us The Lion King and the Sony Playstation. But in October, the scientific community turned to Tallahassee and the dedication of a new national science facility.

The National High Magnetic Field Laboratory was to be the most powerful and comprehensive collection of advanced research magnets in the world. Four years after the National Science Foundation's decision to move the lab to Tallahassee, the renovation of an abandoned administrative building into a complex scientific laboratory was completed and users were welcomed for science.

A moving dedication

2014 MagLab Reports cover

This story appeared in Vol. 22, No. 1 of MagLab Reports. Read more stories from the lab's triannual magazine.

A veritable Who's Who of state and national academics, scientists and politicians came to dedicate the facility, under blue skies and breezy weather. A large stage was set up near the front parking lot, and at one moment in the program an oversized sign hanging behind the podium succumbed to the windy weather. Master of Ceremonies and State Chancellor for Education Charlie Reed assured that the lab would operate more successfully than the event's backdrop. And it has.

The new lab was a first-time partnership between multiple states and the federal government to run a science facility. Presidents of Florida State University (FSU) and the University of Florida (UF) joined the director of Los Alamos National Lab (LANL) to explain how the three-site lab would work. With unique magnets housed at each location, all three would come together to offer a comprehensive user program. Los Alamos National Lab's Dr. Pete Miller described it as "a model for future state and federal collaborations to support education, science and economic competitiveness."

Florida Governor Lawton Chiles and U.S. Senator Bob Graham welcomed the keynote speaker, Vice President Al Gore. Gore arrived on crutches due to a basketball injury, but spoke in stride about the lab's "amazing story … of how people working together can create the world's preeminent magnetic laboratory where a few short years before there was nothing." He predicted that the National MagLab would "lead America into the next frontier of technology" and provide the United States "with a significant global competitive edge in many areas of science and technology."

Breaking records

The lab's first operational magnet in 1994 — a 27 tesla (T) resistive magnet that beat the records of the time — was built in-house and set into motion magnet-making dominance at the MagLab. Fast forward 20 years, and now the National MagLab is home to 14 world-record magnet systems.

A new concept in bitter disk design developed a few months after the facility was dedicated changed the way resistive magnets are built. MagLab engineers discovered that modifications to the nearly 60-year-old disk design (such as elongating the cooling holes) could result in less stress on the magnet and better overall performance. Invented at the FSU headquarters, these patented "Florida bitter disks" continue to be used at most of the world's high field magnet labs today.

These disks also became the foundation for the 45 T Guinness World Record magnet that came online in December 1999. The 45 T has produced important research on some of condensed matter physics' most puzzling phenomena, including high-temperature superconductivity, the quantum Hall effect and Bose-Einstein condensation.

Advances in superconductivity and magnet design helped facilitate the construction of the lab's first Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) magnet, the groundbreaking 900 MHz Ultra-Wide Bore, in 2004. This magnet enables scientists to look inside small living animals to study diseases like tuberculosis, Alzheimer’s, HIV/AIDS, influenza and Parkinson’s.

In 2012, the 100 T at Los Alamos' Pulsed Field Facility broke records, providing scientists with 15 milliseconds of very high fields to better understand superconductivity, phase transitions and so-called quantum critical points.

The lab's newest world record holder, the 21 tesla Fourier Transform Ion Cyclotron Resonance (FT-ICR) magnet, offers the highest resolution mass spectrometry available for the analysis of extremely complex mixtures, including petroleomics, dissolved organic matter, metabolomics, top-down proteomics and matrix-assisted laser desorption/ ionization imaging.

Measuring up

Thumbing through the program from the lab's dedication written over 20 years ago is a remarkable measure of how far the National MagLab has come — the promises of magnets that have been realized (and other magnet systems that couldn’t even be conceived of back then), of discoveries that have been made and of an interdisciplinary research community that has been built. The lab’s original 290,000-square-foot facility has expanded to nearly 400,000 square feet, and is now filled with not just world-record magnet systems, but research and office space for hundreds of highly experienced scientists and technicians.

Labs from around the world now call on the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory to construct one-of-a-kind magnet systems, like the 26 T series connected hybrid magnet used for neutron scattering at Helmholtz Zentrum Berlin in October 2014. MagLab engineers have also built magnets for labs in Japan, France, the Netherlands and Australia.

And perhaps the most important measure of progress is the growth from dozens of users in the lab's first year to thousands of users from around the world in 2014. After traveling to one of the lab's three sites to conduct research on materials, energy and life, MagLab users are publishing over 450 articles each year in peer-reviewed scientific and engineering journals.

Scientists working in the lab's high fields over the last two decades have made important discoveries on new materials, energy storage and our understanding of life:

  • New states of matter have been discovered in graphene through the application of high magnetic fields, including room-temperature quantum Hall effect, fractional quantum Hall effect and fractal energy states.
  • Breakthroughs in applied superconductivity, for example, the changes in Bi-2212 when pressurized enable the creation of new magnets.
  • Imaging sodium to study cancer, stroke, migraines and traumatic brain injuries.
  • Exciting electron magnetic resonance spin work and its application to quantum computing.
  • Work on other 2D materials beyond graphene like topological insulators or oxide interfaces, that provide new environments for unusual collective electronic behaviors.

Reaching out

October 1994 was also the public's first peek at the lab and the beginning of an annual event that has grown to attract thousands each year. After the dedication, the lab opened its doors for public tours, talks and science demonstrations. Those same doors have opened every year since, providing an opportunity to explore the lab and conduct hands-on science during what has become known as the MagLab Open House. Last year, nearly 6,000 people from around the Southeast attended.

In addition to this special annual event, the National MagLab hosts regular tours, camps, lectures, research experiences and special science events that give students and adults year-round opportunities to engage with the lab's staff and science. Tens of thousands of students and adults have attended the lab's 19 Open House events (with over 5,500 people at the most recent February 21, 2015) or engaged with one of the dynamic educational programs offered at the MagLab.

Over the years, the lab has hosted some of science's biggest celebrities such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Ira Flatow, and has even welcomed Magneto himself, Sir Ian McKellen.

Forward thinking

This year, on the 20th anniversary of that original dedication, the MagLab is celebrating its impact on science and renewing its promise to continue operating as a hotbed of discovery. The lab has launched a new look and a yearlong campaign — "Moving Science Forward" — that showcases its impact on researchers, educators, students, our state, country and the world. The lab kicked off "Moving Science Forward" during the 2014 User Committee Meeting in early October, an especially fitting time considering the lab's strong focus on users.

"The MagLab has been built around its user community from the very beginning," said Greg Boebinger, the MagLab's director since 2004. "These are our lab's scientific pioneers, the people who make the trailblazing discoveries that shape the future."

A commemorative video featuring footage of the original dedication event was released during the User Committee Meeting along with student design boards from a unique partnership with FSU's College of Fine Arts.

Working with two classes — one led by Disney Imagineer and FSU Entrepreneur in Residence Mk Haley, and the other part of FSU's Interior Design Department — fine arts students joined forces with scientists from the MagLab to craft a fun, educational space for all ages that teaches about electricity and magnetism. Their semester-long efforts proposed hands-on exhibits and a refreshed look for the lab. More information on this unique collaboration is featured in A New MagLab Look.

Boebinger was pleased with the work, affirming, "The quality of this student work has been impressive and speaks to my strong personal interest in the interplay between art and science."

Expanding online

Beyond this design partnership, a new website launched in January offers visitors more hands-on opportunities to engage with the lab, this time from the comfort of their mobile devices. The site features more science content, a revamped education section and a modern, mobile-friendly look that better showcases the lab's instruments, research output and expertise, all at the tap of a finger.

"When we gave our User Committee an early look at the site in October, they were very excited about the new user support features," Boebinger recalled. "Tools like comprehensive magnet and technique searches, links to published papers on existing techniques and information on various sample environments are very exciting for bringing in first-time users."

But not all of the new website's features are for scientists. A section dubbed Magnet Academy offers students, teachers and other curious adults the opportunity to explore electricity and magnetism. Demonstrations, videos, interactive tutorials and activities answer questions about magnetism. Visitors can select content catered to their specific learning style and teachers can search for lessons and other activities by topic, age or grade level.

"We know that teachers are asked to do so much in the classroom," said Carlos Villa, the lab's K-12 education coordinator. "This site gives teachers the tools they need to feature electricity and magnetism in their science classes in an engaging way their students will enjoy."

Coupled with this new website, the MagLab is also expanding its overall online presence further into the social-sphere. The lab has long been active on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, but new accounts on Pinterest, Flickr, Instagram and LinkedIn offer even more opportunities to engage with the lab and stay on top of new research, jobs and events.

Time for a facelift

At the center of the new website, campaign and design collaboration is an updated, modern look for the 20-year-old lab. A new logo — a vector arrow above the letter M — is the scientific symbol for magnetization, or what happens to a material inside a magnet. The image is rooted in high-level magnet science, but is also cool and accessible to the lab's layperson fans.

"There were many early sketches of coils and field lines, but ultimately, this choice offered a unique and graphic visual symbol for our lab," said Boebinger who was actively involved in the design process.

The color palate for the lab's new brand is also inspired by science: the electromagnetic spectrum of light — from infrared to ultraviolet — grounded by a strong, metallic gray. Even the short animation that introduces online videos and tutorials is built using the real sound of the 100 T pulsed magnet.

In the coming months, the lab plans to release other pieces of this campaign, including an economic impact report showcasing the value of the lab.

But the lab isn't merely celebrating the past; it is looking ahead to a strong future as well. What new discoveries will be made at the lab in the coming years?

"The future is the most difficult thing to predict," Boebinger said, "and the frontiers for high field research are ever accelerating. We are developing new science drivers with our users and prioritizing the resulting requests for new magnet systems and measurement techniques. All of this balanced with a need to maintain our world-leading facilities in service to the ever-expanding demands for magnet time from our user community."

The lab is building a laundry list of new magnets to continue serving both the user program and in-house research efforts.

  • In 2015, the MagLab is slated to complete a 36 tesla series connected hybrid magnet that will break the record for field homogeneity. This new magnet will enable new science with a magnetic field that is both very high and very stable while operating much more cost effectively than comparable magnets.
  • The following year, a 32 T all-superconducting magnet will become the world's most powerful superconducting magnet.
  • The cleverly named "Platypus" will be a high-field, high-homogeneity magnet built from Bi-2212 round wire. It is known as "a first mammal in the age of NMR dinosaurs."
  • A forthcoming 28 megawatt magnet will also offer very high fields of around 40 T while using much less power.

Twenty years after opening, there is new terrain ahead and pioneers are always welcome.