University News

New $2.9 million magnetic tool will further research

The 3.8-ton new instrument creates a magnetic field for studying molecules

Contributing Writer
Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A crane was needed to transport the University’s new 3.8-ton magnetic device into 70 Ship St. through the roof.

While students struggle to stay warm, researchers in the Structural Biology Core Facility are preparing to cool a new device to below minus 454 degrees Fahrenheit. The $2.9 million instrument will greatly expand the University’s capacity to study life at near-atomic levels, according to a University press release.

The instrument is one of the strongest of its kind in the country, with a magnetic field strength of 19.97 Tesla, the unit used to measure magnetic flux density. At the core of the instrument is a large magnet composed of 100 miles of wire bathed in liquid helium and surrounded by liquid nitrogen. The instrument, which weighs 3.8 tons, was lifted by crane through the roof of the facility at 70 Ship St. Feb. 1, according to the press release.

Within the Ivy League, Brown’s device, which is expected to run constantly, is now surpassed in magnetic strength only by a 21.1 Tesla instrument shared by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. By comparison, a typical hospital magnetic resonance imaging machine operates at around 1.5 Tesla. The super-cooled temperatures allow the magnet to maintain such a strong field.

The new instrument allows “completely different types of research,” said Wolfgang Peti, associate professor of medical science. He likened the new instrument to a “Porsche” compared to the previous instrument, which he compared to a “Chevy.” Peti and other Brown researchers previously had to travel to Brandeis University for days at a time to access a similar tool, he said. Experiments using the device can take several days, he added.

Peti worked with Provost Mark Schlissel P’15 to secure funding for the magnet, which was paid for by anonymous donors. Peti said the University is looking to expand the core facility even further with a third instrument at midrange strength and added that Brown may be investing in structural biology, the study of biological molecules like proteins, because it often has immediate practical applications despite its focus on basic mechanisms. The field was historically crucial in developing the first drugs to fight human immunodeficiency virus, he added.

Once the University establishes the Structural Biology Core Facility as a major research center, it could receive federal funding, Peti said. The research group currently includes about 30 people, he said. The University also plans to sell time with the new instrument to other institutions, including the University of Rhode Island, according to the press release.

Nick Fawzi, assistant professor of medical science, cited the “world-class” instrument as one of the reasons he joined the University’s faculty. It is “going to be a really great tool to do really good work,” he said. Before coming to Brown, he used a similar instrument to study the protein aggregation implicated in Alzheimer’s disease. He was first author on the resulting paper, published in the journal Nature. He said he hopes to expand upon those results at Brown by studying protein aggregates in Lou Gehrig’s disease and a form of dementia.

It will take three weeks to charge the magnet, and it will be an additional three months before it is fully operational, Peti said. In the meantime, Peti said he hopes it will inspire undergraduates to join the research effort.

Due to an editing error, a previous version of the summary deck for this article incorrectly described the magnetic field of a new device as “frigid.” In fact, the magnet itself will be cooled. Magnetic fields do not have temperatures. The Herald regrets the error.

  • NMR Jock

    So many words written, but all we know is it’s a “tool” or an “instrument” that involves some sort of magnet and is cold. Isn’t it cold *because it’s a superconducting magnet*, which is the critical detail, rather than that the studies are occuring in frigid samples? Let’s cut out the astonishment at big numbers and actually say what it is. NMR? MRI? EPR? SQUID?

  • Alex Constantino

    @fd16b8a8e3d8f189b4de5566cad88268:disqus The instrument is a powerful NMR spectrometer (a Bruker 850, if you’re interested in the technical specifications). However, we believe “nuclear magnetic resonance” is jargon that communicates nothing to a general audience.

  • Larmor Amour

    It’s fairly apparent from the picture and description that it’s supposed to be an NMR spectrometer, although it’s also incorrect on it only being surpassed by an instrument at MIT. There are a few 900 MHz magnets out there in the wild, and there’s even a 1 GHz spectrometer (23.5 T) in France! Having regular access to an 850 is, no doubt, a boon to the University’s efforts for strengthening its Structural Biology program.

    • Larmor Amour

      Whoops, reading comprehension. They are correct within the Ivy league. But that definitely undersells the relative ubiquity of these high field strength spectrometers.