4 September 2012

Small addition to bring big expansion to MagLab's capabilities

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In December 1973, a young scientist named Alan Marshall using a modest 2-tesla magnet co-invented a technique for analyzing chemicals called Fourier Transform Ion Cyclotron Resonance Mass Spectrometry. Due in large part to Marshall’s efforts over the decades since, FT-ICR has become a powerful, widely used technique for deciphering the chemical composition of complex substances such as petroleum, proteins and biofuels.

Next year, in time for the 40th anniversary of that first FT-ICR mass spectrum, the strongest FT-ICR magnet ever built will be commissioned at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory. It will be the newest of a half dozen world-record magnets at the lab, the largest and highest-powered magnet lab on Earth.

Marshall, director of the MagLab’s ICR program since 1993, has been overseeing the $17.5 million project, funded by the National Science Foundation. The new 21-tesla machine will not only dwarf the power of Marshall's very first ICR magnet, it will almost double the accuracy of measurements now produced in the lab’s current flagship 14.5 tesla ICR instrument.

“The leap from 14.5 to 21 tesla is huge,” said MagLab director Greg Boebinger about the increase in magnetic field strength. “The 21T will be the Hubble of ICR machines: powerful, versatile and providing a far clearer picture than we’ve ever had before.” The superconducting magnet itself is being built by Bruker Corp. It’s scheduled for delivery next spring, when it will be coupled with special instrumentation being designed and built at the MagLab.

Development of the 21-tesla machine coincides with construction now underway on a 2,500-square-foot bay to house the new machine and, eventually, two additional mass spectrometers which will meet the growing demand for instrument time, both for MagLab scientists and users from the external community. The expansion is slated to finish this fall.

It’s an impressive collection of hardware — but useless, said Marshall, without the world-renowned expertise of the lab’s ICR scientists and other staff to back it up. That brain power is a large reason why some 100 external researchers a year turn to the ICR facility for help mapping out molecules in chemically complex samples.

“People come here as much because of the expertise as they do because of the gear,” said Marshall from his corner office, a stone’s throw from the suite of magnets he oversees. “We have half a dozen people down the hall who are the world experts on doing all this, plus technicians and machinists ... these people are always developing something new.”

In fact, Marshall and his team coined the name and aggressively developed the field of petroleomics — the characterization of crude oil at the molecular level. Thanks to their unique instruments and techniques, lab scientists can take a fraction of a drop of oil — the most chemically complex substance on earth — and pinpoint the identity of every type of molecule in that sample. Such complex analyses can lead to better, faster and more efficient drilling, refining and delivery.

The new, more accurate 21 tesla ICR machine will also help scientists understand the mechanism of action of proteins — a potential boon to drug development — and further research into new kinds of biofuels.

Although the ICR addition may seem modest compared to the sprawling 310,000-square-foot building it is joining, it marks the first time since the lab opened two decades ago that research space has been added to the building. Given that the lab’s staffing, programs and equipment have grown significantly over that time, even this small gain is exciting, said MagLab Facilities Director John Kynoch.

“I’m excited that we’re getting some more space,” said Kynoch. “The whole building is really running out of space. Whenever we have a new lab come in, we usually have to move someone else out ... so it's very hard to accommodate new people.”

Because the building, designed by Hicks Nation Architects, will house powerful magnets, magnetic materials such as rebar could not be used in the cement floor. Instead, a composite fiber was used. Also, general contractor Albritton Williams, Inc., coordinated the running of heavy construction equipment so as not to interfere with the experiments taking place in existing nearby magnets.