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Los Alamos: Home to the world’s most powerful controlled-pulse magnet

LOS ALAMOS, N.M., 2002 -- Over the past 11 years in the world of magnets, The Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory has gone from being recognized for pulse megagauss explosives field work to being the world leader in pulsed-magnetic-field research and home to the world's most powerful controlled-pulse magnet. When the Lab's facility first opened in 1992, there was one magnet with one user working on one project. Today, the facility has five working magnet cells, two large superconducting magnets, a 60 Tesla Long Pulse magnet in rebuild, and a 100 Tesla magnet in design. It also hosts over 130 users a year from around the world working on more than 100 projects.

The National High Magnetic Field Laboratory at Los Alamos functions as the pulsed-magnet facility of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory – a consortium of three labs. The consortium members include Los Alamos; Florida State University, Tallahassee; and the University of Florida, Gainesville. The NHMFL is one of nine laboratories of its kind in the world and the only one in the Western Hemisphere. It is funded through the National Science Foundation, the state of Florida and the U.S. Department of Energy.

The NHMFL consortium provides state-of-the-art facilities for high-magnetic-field-related research in all areas of science and engineering, including biology, medicine, chemistry, geochemistry, bio-engineering, materials science and physics. These facilities are open to all qualified users, generally without cost, through a peer-review proposal process. Users come from universities, private industries and government laboratories worldwide.

NHMFL was born in August 1990 when Don Parkin of Materials Science and Technology Division Office (MST-DO), Jack Crow from Florida State University and Neil Sullivan from the University of Florida received word that NSF had granted their proposal to build the three campuses of the high-magnetic-field laboratory.

"There was stiff competition with Massachusetts Institute of Technology for this award and the NSF made a bold forwarding move to award the NHMFL to our team," Parkin said.

In February 1991, a small group of physicists, engineers, designers and technicians formed to build the NHMFL pulsed magnetic field laboratory at Los Alamos. This group brought together previous Laboratory expertise and experience in pulsed high magnetic field research, pulsed power engineering, magnet engineering, cryogenics and materials. That summer, NHMFL broke ground in Tallahassee, and a few months later in spring 1992 Los Alamos received its first magnet, a 50 Tesla short-pulse given to the NHMFL through a collaboration with the Katholieke Universiteit in Leuven, Belgium.

The Laboratory moved quickly to establish itself as a user facility, and in 1992 NHMFL-LANL had its first user, James Brooks from Boston University, who conducted both flux compression experiments "...Transport Study of YBCO Epitaxial Critical State Behavior..." and the first 50 Tesla short-pulse experiment "Fermi Surface Investigation of Molecular Conductors." By the end of 1993, NHMFL-LANL had grown to nearly 20 users conducting around 50 experiments.

By 1997, NHMFL-LANL had four pulsed magnets on line and started to commission of the 60 Tesla long-pulse magnet. In 1999 the NHMFL-LANL ceased all operations for eight months to upgrade its facilities. When it reopened in the spring of 2000, it was equipped with five cells – five rooms capable of interchanging magnets – and increased capability to host more users.

Two months after the facility upgrade, the 60 Tesla-Long-Pulse magnet failed at peak magnetic field and was destroyed in the resulting explosion. Although it is in pulsed magnets' nature to fail, this one was premature. Engineers are in the process of rebuilding this magnet, along with designing an even larger 100 Tesla magnet – both magnets are expected to be completed by early 2004.

NHMFL-LANL now has a full-time staff of 20 scientists, engineers and technicians and routinely hosts over 130 users a year. The Laboratory staff scientists design new magnets, conduct experiments, maintain the facility and collaborate with the user groups. Between the Lab's staff and users, the magnets are used nearly 900 times a year. The projects conducted at the Los Alamos facility vary greatly from looking at whether pulsed-magnetic fields could destroy Escherichia coli to looking for new, stronger, lighter and more heat-resistant materials to plutonium research.

Scientists use pulsed magnets to subject material samples to strong magnetic fields to learn about the material's physical composition and characteristics. During this time, measurements are taken regarding the material's behavior and certain vital characteristics. The 60-Tesla Long-Pulse magnet was revolutionary for this type of research, not only because of its strength (a million times that of Earth's magnetic field) but also because of the "long-pulse" (one tenth of a second), during which hundreds more measurements are taken than in a "short-pulse."

"The technological jump, the amount of energy we can store and what we can do from the short-pulse to long-pulse magnet is huge," said Alex Lacerda, head of the Los Alamos NHMFL users program. "The range of experiments using the long-pulse magnet is very different than the short pulse. For example making thermodynamic measurements with the short pulse is almost impossible, but in collaboration with scientists from MST-10, we have proven the possibility of conducting such experiments with the long pulse."

The Laboratory gets its magnets in three different ways: It designs some of its magnets and then has them built by industry, purchases magnets from commercial companies or obtains magnets specially designed and built by NHMFL-Tallahassee.

"When first established in Los Alamos in 1992,the magnet lab needed to compete with veteran pulsed-field laboratories in Europe and Asia," said Greg Boebinger, NHMFL center leader. "Today, the MST-NHMFL is the leading research laboratory in the world in condensed-matter, pulsed-magnetic-field research."


By Shelley Thompson

Los Alamos National Laboratory is operated by the University of California for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) of the U.S. Department of Energy and works in partnership with NNSA's Sandia and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories to support NNSA in its mission.

Los Alamos enhances global security by ensuring safety and confidence in the U.S. nuclear stockpile, developing technologies to reduce threats from weapons of mass destruction and improving the environmental and nuclear materials legacy of the cold war. Los Alamos' capabilities assist the nation in addressing energy, environment, infrastructure and biological security problems.

For more Los Alamos news, visit www.lanl.gov.


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