New crystal growth program to enhance FSU’s materials research efforts

FSU's new, state-of-the-art image furnace

Florida State University already has an excellent reputation for its various efforts to design, prepare and characterize new materials for research and commercial uses. Now that reputation is about to be burnished even further as scientists at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory ramp up a program for forming exotic crystals that possess unique properties.

Chris Wiebe heads up the magnet lab’s Quantum Materials Group, the centerpiece of which is a new, state-of-the-art image furnace capable of "growing" crystals such as magnetic oxides and high-temperature superconductors.

Access to these samples—the demand for which currently far outstrips the supply—and the ability to create completely new ones will give the lab and its research partners a distinct advantage.

"Crystal growth programs in North America typically have lagged behind those of other countries," said Wiebe, an assistant professor of physics at FSU. "We can’t get enough good samples because the Japanese are so far ahead of us."

Wiebe said purchasing the image furnace is part of the magnet lab’s commitment to getting the samples needed to return the U.S. to the forefront of sample development.

The image furnace looks a bit like a refrigerator with the housing for a car engine inside. At the core of the furnace, two rods meet, spinning slowly in opposite directions. These rods are created from scratch at the magnet lab, and different combinations of rods and materials yield different crystals. In the furnace, the rods are superheated with refracted light, and that heat acts as the catalyst for the reaction that forms crystals with special properties.

The "car engine" appearance of the furnace is lent by the water-cooled shell that, even with the furnace operating, is cool enough to touch. This shell enables researchers to place a video camera directly in front of the action, so that as the rods meet and crystals are formed, the success or failure of each effort can be monitored in real time.

Creating sophisticated crystals isn’t as easy as following a recipe and putting in the right ingredients; mastery of techniques is paramount. Combining the different materials and techniques is creative, demanding work, and the group already has met with success, reproducing a difficult-to-make superconducting crystal first developed by Japanese researchers. Interest in the crystal has spawned collaboration between the magnet lab and chemists in FSU’s Center for Materials Research & Technology (MARTECH,

The image furnace also will benefit the lab’s magnet development program, because the crystals, such as the high-temperature superconductors, are materials that can be used to create the powerful magnets for which the lab is best known.

Wiebe said he expects that the furnace eventually will be incorporated into the lab’s user program, leading to collaborations with physicists, chemists and engineers at other labs and universities around the world. With the addition of the image furnace, the magnet lab becomes one of only a few science facilities in the world capable of providing high-quality samples to eagerly awaiting experimental physicists.

"We’re joining an elite club," Wiebe said.

The $180,000, Japanese-built furnace is funded jointly through start-up funds contributed by Wiebe and scholar scientist Luis Balicas, as well as through the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the FSU Office of Research.

The National High Magnetic Field Laboratory ( develops and operates state-of-the-art, high-magnetic-field facilities that faculty and visiting scientists and engineers use for interdisciplinary research. The laboratory is sponsored by the NSF and the state of Florida and is the only facility of its kind in the United States.