Magnets in Technology

Another big subject: how magnets have infiltrated our daily lives. It’s remarkable to think how magnet based technology has shaped our lives over the last century to the point of utter dependency.

Without magnets we wouldn’t have electricity, thanks to Michael Faraday who showed that electricity, magnetism and motion are all linked.  Electric generators can be powered by wind, water, coal, oil, gas, petrol, diesel or nuclear power, without magnets they would just be producing heat.

Magnets are integral to computers, smart phones, speakers not to mention scientific instruments which help us discover more about our world such as MRI scanners or  Large Hadron Collider the largest magnetic instrument on the planet working at the quantum physics level.

Thousands of “lattice magnets” on the LHC at CERN bend and tighten the particles’ trajectory. They are responsible for keeping the beams stable, and aligned so they don’t touch the sides of the accelerator as they reach near the speed of light . 1232 main Dipole magnets are arranged along the 27 km length of the  collider each 15 metres long and weighing in at 35 tonnes (click to see the film).

At the other end of the scale magnetic nano sensors are being developed for many research applications and one area of interest which is gathering pace are those used in neuroscience.  As magnets get stronger they can also get smaller and therefore more affordable, opening up research possibilities like Magnetoencephalogram (MEG) headset technology.  I mentioned this in a previous blog which use quantum sensors (SQUIDS) to measure the weak magnetic fields produced by the brains electrical activity.

At UCL in collaboration with Nottingham University they have secured funding from the Welcome Trust to develop fully a portable headset. Professor Barnes (UCL): “Our scanner will be worn on the head like a helmet, meaning subjects can undertake tasks whilst moving freely in an open and natural environment.”

Compare this technology with Dr. Cohen’s shielded room at MIT in 1968, in which first Magnetoencephalogram was measured.

There is some overlap here with the work of Prof Joe Kirschvink, studying  Magnetoreception in Humans, more on that in the next blog post.