Huge Magnet Arrives at UI, Only To Wait in the Snow

Postponement wasn't option for long-awaited day

CHAMPAIGN - Blowing snow and 18-degree temperatures aren't ideal weather conditions for unloading a 40-ton superconducting magnet.

Life was complicated enough for workers delivering the $2.75 million magnet to the University of Illinois without Wednesday's snowstorm.

"We couldn't have picked worse weather," lamented a snow-flecked Doug Beck, a UI physics professor who is spokesman for the international team that will use the magnet for research on protons and nuclear magnetism.

The magnet - 14 feet in diameter and weighing more than 80,000 pounds - was to be moved into the high-bay area of the UI's Nuclear Physics Lab.

This morning, it was still outside, covered with snow, though the weather wasn't to blame. Crews decided that a second crane would be needed to lift the magnet off the flatbed truck, Beck said. Work was to continue today.

"We think it will take the better part of the day today, but we hope to have it up there this afternoon," Beck said this morning. "The weather's better today, so we won't be so hampered by that."

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the magnet was designed by UI researchers for an upcoming experiment at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Va. Built by Babcock and Wilcox Technologies in Lynchburg, Va., it took three years to complete.

The magnet will be inspected and tested at the UI in coming months. Late next year, it will be shipped back to Virginia, where it will serve as the centerpiece of the experiment.

The project involves about 100 scientists from 20 institutions across the globe, including the United States, Canada, France, and Armenia. UI physicist Steve Williamson is experiment coordinator.

A handful of spectators braved the snow Wednesday to watch the delivery. It was a long-awaited day for Beck.

"I started working on this 10 years ago this month," he said.

The UI team didn't have the option of postponing Wednesday's delivery, despite the driving snow.

The magnet's trek from Virginia required building permits and even bridge inspections along the way, and a special crane was rented for the unloading Wednesday.

"You can't just say, 'Let's wait a day,'" Beck said.

The cold temperatures won't hurt the magnet, which will eventually be cooled to minus 459 degrees Fahrenheit, or "absolute zero."

"It may be cold out, but it's not that cold," Beck said.

The magnet rolled into town about 12:30 p.m. Tuesday and was parked at the Assembly Hall. Truck driver Robin Leake, who hauled the magnet from Virginia, drove it to the Nuclear Physics Lab about 10 a.m. Wednesday.

The plan was to use the crane to lift it off the truck, turn it on its side and pull it into the building with cables attached to metal plates welded to the floor of the lab. The collapsible crane was then to be rolled into the building, where it would lift the magnet onto its aluminum base.

It soon became clear that one crane wasn't enough to rotate the magnet, officials said.

The rigging company decided to borrow another crane from a construction project it's working on at Parkland College.

Crews also removed the top of the magnet, as planned, though they didn't expect to have it open this long, Beck said.

Williamson said that shouldn't pose a problem, although it will take some time to remove the water vapor inside the magnet.

Beck said researchers weren't too disappointed. No one really knew how long it would take to install the magnet. "Everybody knew it was going to be tough," he said.

In 1994, the UI installed a $6 million, 150-ton magnet at the Beckman Institute, only to see it break before it could ever be used.

During the testing phase, UI researchers will cool the new magnet to liquid-helium temperatures and turn it on for the first time.

That could take up to 10 days. Once it's stabilized, researchers will apply power and watch for unexpected movements. As the power is gradually increased, a 13-foot-high robotic test rig will precisely monitor the growing magnetic-field strength in a three-dimensional space, and alert the researchers to potential problems.

Beck said a huge amount of energy is stored in the magnetic field - about the same as two cars colliding at 60mph. If pieces of the magnet shift too far, the magnet could be destroyed.

The magnet will help scientists examine the role that the so-called "strange" quark and other subatomic particles play in proton structure.

Protons have a characteristic rate of flipping up and down, like a bar magnet, which is what MRI scans measure.

"We really don't have much of an idea of what makes up that magnet inside the proton," Beck said.

During the experiment, an intense beam of polarized electrons will be fired at a liquid hydrogen target in the magnet's core. Detectors, mounted around the perimeter of the magnet, will record the number and position of the scattered particles.