To explore that new frontier, Magnet Lab researchers are developing instrumentation to work with a powerful new magnet. The grant will pay for the design and construction of a portable, 500-pound-plus array of electronic amplifiers and devices needed to advance science. Construction of the magnet, known as the Series Connected Hybrid, started in 2006 with an $11.7 million grant from the NSF.
When completed in 2013, the combined tools will allow scientists "to perform potentially transformative science in an unexplored magnetic-field range for a broad range of applications, from biological tissues to battery materials," Magnet Lab physicist Bill Brey said.
The spectrometer will enable researchers to use nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) techniques similar in principle to those employed by MRI machines — but at very high magnetic fields. Hospitals routinely scan patients inside MRI machines whose magnets produce a field of no more than 3 tesla. (Tesla is a scientific measure of magnetic-field intensity; by comparison, the Earth's magnetic field is about 0.00005 tesla.) What makes the Series Connected Hybrid magnet unique is that it will combine an amazingly powerful magnetic-field strength of 36 tesla with the field quality needed for NMR.
For nuclear magnetic resonance, 23 tesla is now the cutting edge for science," Brey said. "So 36 tesla is years and years beyond the cutting edge. It's an increase in field strength of more than 50 percent."
And that's saying something, given that the last 50-percent jump in magnetic-field strength took 20 years, said Tim Cross, a chemistry professor at Florida State and director of the Magnet Lab's Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Program.
"NMR and MRI techniques are very powerful, but they have been limited to just a few elements," Brey said. "This new spectrometer and the 36-tesla magnet will give scientists around the world a new window on most of the known elements, including oxygen, nitrogen, and metals."
Researchers such as Cross will use the spectrometer to examine the role of proteins in cells in ways that could lead to breakthroughs in science's understanding of diseases. Other scientists will use the same spectrometer to study materials for new generations of batteries.
The new hybrid magnet will have some other advantages for NMR. Unlike hospital MRI and chemistry-department NMR magnets, which operate at a fixed-field strength, the hybrid magnet and spectrometer will allow for experiments across a range of field strengths, literally providing a new dimension for NMR. The new magnet also will be able to run for more than eight continuous hours at full magnetic field, enough time to collect the weak signals and finish long and complex experiments.
But just as it took America's pioneers a long time to reach the West, Magnet Lab researchers still have more terrain to cover — and more obstacles to overcome — before they arrive at their new frontier. Once there, however, the rewards could be great.
"Whenever there's been a big jump in magnetic-field strength like this, people have won Nobel Prizes," Brey said. "So who knows?"