The Strongest Magnet Attempt

The National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee Florida has been awarded nearly $3 million to build a novel kind of superconducting magnet that’s expected to break records for magnetic field strength, make possible new types of science and save vast amounts of energy and money.  Of interest is the technologies that could benefit from improved magnetic fields such as the Bussard Fusion team.

The magnet is funded by a National Science Foundation grant of $2 million and a matching award from The Florida State University of $1 million.  The goal is to generate a magnetic field of 32 Tesla, the scientific unit of measure of magnetic field strength. The National High magnetic Field Lab press release says, “That is more than 3,000 times stronger than a typical refrigerator magnet, and about 45 percent more powerful than the strongest superconducting magnets available today.”

Brian Wang’s NextBigFuture site offers these applications:

  • Better quantum oscillation measurements
  • Hopefully advanced the understanding of superconductivity physics
  • Should lead to even better superconducting magnets and hopefully breakthroughs in understanding that lead to room temperature superconductors.
  • It will allow more detailed investigation of other superconducting materials
  • It will provide low cost permanent high field magnets instead of pulsing to this field strength or using resistive magnets that are expensive to get up to high field strength.

This is just the tip of the scientific iceberg. The material that will be used for this magnet, a type of high-temperature superconductor called yttrium barium copper oxide, or YBCO, promises to revolutionize research in high magnetic fields.

NHMFL 32 Tesla Diagram. .

NHMFL 32 Tesla Diagram. .

Non-superconducting electromagnets, called resistive magnets, consume massive amounts of electricity. At the magnet lab, the average cost to run a resistive magnet is $774 per hour – 40 times more than a 20-tesla superconducting magnet.  A current example is superconducting magnets have been powering hospital MRI machines for decades at about 1 to 3 tesla, and are commonly used in other high-field research. They are valuable in part because they are made with special superconducting materials that conduct electricity without any friction, and therefore use very little electricity.

Opposite to that are the downsides to superconducting magnets in that the materials they are built with work only at temperatures so low that expensive cryogens, such as liquid helium, are needed to operate them. Also, traditional superconducting materials stop working inside a magnetic field above about 23 tesla, so resistive magnets have always been able to outperform them.

NHMFL 32 Tesla Superconducting Coil. .

NHMFL 32 Tesla Superconducting Coil. .

But YBCO oversteps both these hurdles. It belongs to a class known as high-temperature superconductors. These materials perform at much higher temperatures than their “low-temperature” cousins, making them more practical and cheaper to operate – and they continue to operate beyond the point at which low-temperature superconductors cease working.

YBCO has another huge benefit: Superconducting magnets create more stable magnetic fields than resistive magnets, which produce better data for scientists. All of this means the 32-tesla project will be the first of a whole new generation of powerful, low-cost superconducting magnets.

William Denis Markiewicz, principal investigator on the project says, “The objective is to develop and demonstrate the technology that can be used in magnets that will eventually replace the resistive magnets in our facility.  The advantages that will follow include lower operating costs and quieter field conditions for the scientist.”  Markiewicz isa veteran engineer at the lab whose design achievements include the lab’s world-record 900 megahertz, ultra-wide-bore superconducting magnet.”

Stephen Julian, a University of Toronto physicist who sits on the magnet lab’s External Advisory Board and is a co-principal investigator on the grant said, “To have 32 tesla, at such high quality, for such a bargain price will be nothing less than a boon for physics.  This magnet opens up new possibilities for measurements that we have previously only dreamed of. With these new magnets, researchers will be able to stay at these very high magnetic fields for as long as they like. This will dramatically increase the quality of data for many measurements. We can look forward to breakthroughs in biomedical magnetic resonance imaging, studies of protein structure, semiconductor physics and the physics of metals.”

The project is already making connections. David Larbalestier, chief materials scientist at the lab and the other co-principal investigator on the grant whose primary interest is the high temperature superconductors, expects the new magnet will advance superconductor research.

The research team expects to get the magnet built and running in the Fall of 2012.  They’re going to use about 5 miles of the YBCO wire, some 8 kilometers.  One can fairly expect the project will yield a high quality magnet at a field uniformity of 5