A Magnetic Summer

Posted by Ximone Willis


My biggest takeaway from a UT Austin science demo is how freaking awesome magnets are. We got to see a small magnet hover over a superconductor, and though I’m sure the demo was instead meant to instill a worship of superconductors in us high schoolers, my brain instead chose to hail the might of the magnet. Fast forward five years, and I’m not a physics major. Instead, I’m a biomedical engineer/premed, because somewhere over the course of my four high school years, I realized I really wanted to make robot surgeons. However, my love of magnets never deserted me, and when I toured the National High Magnetic Field lab with the rest of my McDermott class last summer, I decided that if I was going to work with magnets, I was going to work with the most powerful magnets in the world.

As an undergraduate summer researcher at Los Alamos National Labs (LANL), I can’t actually fire the magnet pulses, seeing how a single pulse can use up to 4 megajoules of energy. Instead, I mount samples on the needle-like probes that hold them in the center of the magnetic field. Manufacturing the probes is a job unto itself: they’re less than an inch in diameter and have to have holes machined in them to hold the samples and carry the wires that transmit data back. Furthermore, the probes have to be mostly nonferrous, since otherwise the magnetic field could induce moving charges and heat the probe to disastrous effects. As a result, I’m helping explore new plastics that can be printed into probes, which will be faster to manufacture, and thus save time. The other aspects of my work involve conservation. Our lab runs a helium recovery program, which is no surprise given the rising cost. I write code to graph the amount of helium used by each magnet, as well as create programs that actually read meters and broadcast values on the LANL net (which is not as easy as it seems when you don’t realize you’re programming in the wrong IP address). When I’m not in the lab, I’m exploring the mountains with friends. The other interns and I have gone to Ghost Ranch at noon (for those of you who, like me, didn’t realize this means we tramped around in the desert at high noon, now you know), hiked Pajarito Ski mountain, and cooked Indian food together (with varying degrees of success). Next year, I’m definitely aiming to come back–for both my job and Forrest Fenn’s treasure.

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