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Physicists from the Institute for Solid State Physics at the University of Tokyo got an impromptu reminder of this basic principle when an experiment designed to create the strongest controllable magnetic field ever created got a little bit out of hand.

Using a technique called electromagnetic flux compression, their experimental rig produced a static magnetic field of 3.2 Tesla (no, not the car – it’s a measure of magnetic field strength). The field was about as strong as that created by an MRI scanner. The difference here was that at the center of the rig was a set of coils with a liner inside. By magnetically compressing that liner, they were able to jam the already powerful magnetic field into the tiniest possible space, thus created the second strongest controllable magnetic field ever produced. 

A set of coils produced a static magnetic field of 3.2 Tesla (not the brand of electric cars, but the unit of magnetic field strength), which is around the same as an MRI scanner, writes IEEE Spectrum.

At the centre of the device was a coil with the liner inside. When the device was powered up, it used the coils to compress the liner to create the powerful field. The liner collapsed inwards at about 5km per second, or 15 times the speed of sound. When it reached its smallest diameter, the magnetic field inside the tube was 1,200 Tesla.  That’s significantly close to the strongest magnetic field ever recorded (the strongest was 2,800 Tesla, produced in 2001 by a Russian research team).

Anyway, that’s when things went horribly, horribly wrong. 

The Japanese researchers were only expecting a magnetic field of about 700 Tesla in intensity. Since the copper liner had no place to go after its initial implosion, it exploded at about the same rate of speed. The resulting blast tore the door of the laboratory off its hinges.

When power is applied to the main coil, the current is boosted to 40 million amperes per microsecond. This created an unbelievably powerful magnetic field inside the liner causing it to implode at 15 times the speed of sound.

The experiment was meant to give the physicists new insights into the behavior of electrons, outside their normal environments. 

“With magnetic fields above 1,000 Tesla, you open up some interesting possibilities,” said Professor Shojiro Takeyama. “You can observe the motion of electrons outside the material environments they are normally within, so we can study them in a whole new light and explore new kinds of electronic devices. This same research could also be useful to those working on fusion power generation. One way to produce fusion power is to confine plasma – a sea of charged particles – in a large ring called a tokamak in order to extract energy from it. This requires a strong magnetic field in the order of thousands of teslas for a duration of several microseconds, and this is tantalisingly similar to what our device can produce.”

All kidding aside, science does not usually result in explosions that blow the doors off of laboratories. The researchers at the University of Tokyo was simply taken by surprise by the magnitude of their success!

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