National Research Council Assesses the Status and Future Direction of High Magnetic Field Science

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Publication date: 
11 February 2014

The National Research Council (NRC) was asked by the National Science Foundation to assess the needs of the high magnetic fields research community to determine what are the drivers, opportunities and challenges in high magnetic field science.  The report, High Magnetic Field Science and its Application in the United States: Current Status and Future Directions, is an update to a review of the high magnetic field science last published in 2003.  The NRC Committee, chaired by Bertrand Halperin of Harvard University, was also asked to outline “the current state of high field magnet science, engineering and technology” and to determine what international collaboration is possible with high magnetic field facilities outside of the United States. 

High-field magnets, originally developed for materials research in extreme conditions, contribute to many applied science fields including medicine and petroleum engineering in addition to biology, chemistry, and geology.  Magnetic field research is important to the operation of electronic components including those in magnetic resonance imaging devices.  High magnetic field research plays a prominent role in condensed matter and materials physics.  

High field magnets are both complex and expensive to construct and operate and the report discusses stewardship issues for use of laboratory facilities.  Within the United States, the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory (NHMFL), operated by the National Science Foundation (NSF), is the premier facility for high magnetic field research.  The report concluded that there is a need for a centralized facility such as the NHMFL and that the National Science Foundation “should continue to provide support for the operations of the NHMFL and the development of the next generation of high-field magnets.”  The report additionally recommends that federal agencies evaluate the “feasibility of setting up some smaller regional facilities.”

The report discusses the contributions of high magnetic field research in condensed matter and material physics; examines the use of high magnetic fields for nuclear magnetic resonance and electron paramagnetic resonance; and describes the potential advantages for use of higher magnetic fields for magnetic resonance imaging and magnetic resonance spectroscopy.  Other high field magnet applications, for example in high-energy physics, particle astrophysics, nuclear fusion and radiotherapy are also outlined in the report. 

International cooperation recommendations include “high-field facilities worldwide should be encouraged to collaborate as much as possible to improve the quality of magnets and service for users.  This can be accomplished through the establishment of a global forum for high magnetic fields that consists of representatives of large magnetic field facilities from all continents.  Such a forum would further stimulate collaboration and the exchange of expertise and personnel, thereby providing better service to the scientific community and magnet technology development.” 

Regarding the stewardship of high magnetic field science in the United States, the report discussed the timeframe for recompetition and concluded that “recompetition on timescales as short as 5 years places at risk the substantial national investment in high-field research that is embodied in a national facility like NHMFL and could have disastrous effects on the research communities that rely on uninterrupted access to these facilities.”  The report recommends that NSF and the NHMFL adopt a steward-partner model for partnerships and that “a high-field magnet science and technology school be established in the United States.”

Lastly the report states, “of the many examples of research in high magnetic fields… a large fraction were carried out at facilities run by NHFML.  The experiments were carried out by users from a large variety of universities and research institutions based in the United States and in other countries around the world.”

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