World-record magnet to pull in scientific breakthroughs

The National High Magnetic Field Laboratory has marked a major scientific leap forward with the unveiling of a new, world-record magnet. This new, spectacularly precise magnet, displayed during a commissioning ceremony on July 28, is expected to yield important discoveries in the fields of chemical and biomedical research.

The laboratory, established by the National Science Foundation in 1990, is the world’s premier magnet research facility. It is located in Tallahassee, Fla., and is operated jointly by Florida State University, the University of Florida and the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The new, superconducting magnet, which stands 16 feet tall and weighs more than 15 tons, was no overnight accomplishment. A team of engineers based at the magnet lab worked for 13 years to develop, design, manufacture and test it. Several outside companies, including Intermagnetics General Corporation, collaborated with the magnet lab during this process. Now, with its commissioning, scientists from around the world will be able to expand the horizons of scientific investigation using nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technologies.

At full strength, the magnet has a magnetic field of 21 teslas – teslas being a scientific measure of magnetic field intensity. By comparison, the Earth’s magnetic field is about 0.00005 teslas.

What makes this magnet particularly useful for scientific research, however, is its bore size – 105 mm, or just over 4 inches. The bore is the space within the magnet that holds the sample being tested. The larger the bore size, the larger the sample – and the greater the range of scientific experiments that can be conducted.

“The commissioning of the magnet lab’s new 900-megahertz NMR magnet marks the successful completion of the third of the ‘Big Three’ magnet projects on which the lab was founded,” Greg Boebinger, the lab’s director, said. “Whereas our other big magnet projects specialized in making the most powerful magnetic fields, this magnet specializes in precision. The 900-megahertz magnet delivers 21-tesla magnetic fields that vary by less than 0.0000002 teslas over a volume roughly equal to the size of a small orange – an accomplishment unrivaled anywhere else in the world.

“In addition to their still-unequaled achievements in very powerful magnets over the past decade, this outstanding engineering project demonstrates our Magnet Science and Technology Team to be uniquely talented in bringing precision superconducting magnets to scientific research,” Boebinger said. “The incredibly precise magnetic fields of the 900-megahertz magnet immediately position our chemistry and biology research programs at the forefront of magnetic resonance research – research that will help us understand the workings of biological molecules, as well as the workings of the cell and the brain. Its large volume also enables us to probe the unusual properties of materials under extreme conditions of heat and pressure similar to those found deep in the Earth.”

Science performed using the magnet will range from materials research to macromolecular biological structure determination and non-invasive magnetic resonance imaging of laboratory animals.

Timothy Cross, an FSU chemistry professor and director of the NMR Spectroscopy and Imaging Program at the magnet lab, said the new magnet will offer opportunities for observing specific chemical and biological properties that were not available at lower magnetic fields.

“There are unique benefits that arise at high fields – some atoms become observable that were not practical to observe at a lower field,” he said. “In particular, we are finding that oxygen, a major component of most biological molecules, is observable in the new magnet. This provides us with a new tool for studying biological systems that was not previously available.”

Cross added that the new magnet can be used to determine the shapes and chemical properties of large biological molecules, such as proteins and nucleic acids.

“Pharmaceuticals or drugs bind to biological molecules and interfere or enhance their biological function. For instance, a drug, amantadine, binds to a particular protein (the M2 protein) in the influenza viral coat, preventing it from functioning and terminating the viral infection. Today, we are using the new magnet with collaborators from Northwestern University and Brigham Young University to define the detailed shape and chemical properties of the M2 protein so that a more specific drug for this protein can be designed.”

In similar fashion, the electrical and physical properties of materials can be characterized, leading to the development of novel materials, Cross added.

Among those who made comments at the July 28 magnet commissioning ceremony were Florida State University President T.K. Wetherell; magnet lab director Boebinger; Neil S. Sullivan, dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Florida; and Guebre X. Tessema, program director for national facilities with the National Science Foundation.

One of the distinguished guests in attendance, Stanley J. Opella of the University of California, San Diego, brought a surprise to the ceremony. Opella, who also serves as editor of the prestigious Journal of Magnetic Resonance, announced that the new magnet would be the cover story of the journal’s November 2005 issue.

Additional information about the magnet lab is available at