The “MagLab” as it’s known, is based at Florida State University (FSU) in Tallahassee, Florida with other facilities at the University of Florida and Los Alamos National Laboratory. It is a federal-state partnership that performs field research in physics, biology, chemistry and their related fields that has led to many scientific breakthroughs and inventions, with more to come. One of the best known is the MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machine whose ability to scan the human body has largely replaced the need for exploratory surgery. The MagLab’s MRI magnet is 10 to 20 times more powerful than the hospital version and its field has been made large enough now to study mice.
“We have specialized instrumentation that can image individual cells and the nucleus inside of individual cells,” explained Mr. Boebinger, who prefers not to be called “Dr.” “The record now is a single nerve cell 10 microns across, or one-tenth the diameter of a human hair,” he said.
Boebinger’s specialty is condensed matter physics, what he described as “the physics of things that are on a human scale.” It’s the branch of physics that invented the transistor. “You have in your pocket a device that has two dozen materials that didn’t exist 25 years ago, including the transparent metal touch screen that is part of your cell phone.” Many modern materials he said are examples of quantum matter – materials in quantum engineering that lead to unexpected discoveries.
He led Club members on a fascinating explanation of how magnetic fields are created at the lab and about superconductors, the “dancing electron partners” as he described them, which are a popular focus of its research. These are materials or substances that under the right temperature and magnetic field have no electrical resistance. “If we could develop room temperature superconductors to make MRI magnets big enough for humans, then doctors could get much sharper images of what’s going on in the body,” Boebinger said. “That’s the next goal.”
Boebinger said the MagLab has become “the center of magnetic research in the world,” attracting about 2,000 scientists a year from around the world to conduct their research. But it’s not just the strong magnets that attract scientists to the MagLab, but two other critical elements as well he said: a large number of in-house experts and unique techniques for making scientific measurements that have resulted in 17 world records.
“If you think of us as a company, our product is educated people,” explained Boebinger. “So 235 post-doctoral students in one year, 508 graduate students, and our user community published over 400 refereed papers in the literature. You won’t be able to understand these papers, because these are written in the scientific language. But then other people use this information to write the next generation textbooks that then educate the next generation of engineers and technologists, who then know how to make something that can turn a profit. And so I like to say that we’re laying the foundation for a lot of economic activity,” he said.
While the lab isn’t inexpensive to operate (its electricity consumption alone costs $3,000 an hour) its economic impact is huge. Boebinger said the MagLab generates $709 million of economic activity annually in the U.S., $325 million in Florida, and $221 million in Tallahassee. The lab has created 4,550 jobs in the U.S., 2,680 in Florida, and 2,220 in Tallahassee. Its return on investment is put at $6.44 in economic activity in Florida for every dollar invested by the National Science Foundation, which just awarded the lab its next $195.5 million grant over five years.
The MagLab hopes to improve on that further. “Mag Corp is a new private sector company spin-off of the Magnet Lab that has signed a deal with FSU to help link the private sector to FSU,” Boebinger said. “To help speed things along, they’ve already pre-negotiated some of the terms of contracts and that’s been a huge success.”