Fermilab’s massive 15-ton electromagnet on 3,200-mile journey through the United States

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Huge 15-ton electromagnet receives rock star welcome as it draws huge crowds on 3,200-mile journey across America

  • 50ft wide, 15 ton giant electromagnet made a tricky journey from New York to suburban Chicago
  • It reached the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory on Friday, where it will be used to study fast-moving particles.
  • The magnet attracted a sensation and new fans everywhere it went

He skipped the tolls. He had a Twitter hashtag and a GPS tracker. He even posed for photos with groupies.

The 50-foot-wide, 15-ton electromagnet caused a stir wherever it went on its slow, delicate 3,200-mile journey from New York to suburban Chicago.

The land and sea journey culminated when scientists on Friday greeted a rock star for the mysterious shrink-wrapped cargo as she arrived at the Fermi Accelerator National Laboratory to help study ultra-fast particles.

Tired traveler: The 15-ton 50-foot-wide electromagnet ends its trip Friday, July 26 at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois

On the road: The electromagnet descends Interstate 88 in Naperville, Ill. On its 3,200 mile journey

On the road: The electromagnet descends Interstate 88 in Naperville, Ill. On its 3,200 mile journey

‘Oh look, they found a flying saucer!’ Retired software developer Chris Otis recalled thinking when he saw the massive disc-shaped device when he made a pit stop in a Costco parking lot.

Otis used his cell phone to take photos as he and others marveling at the craft wondered what would happen if it suddenly became operational. Electromagnets need an electric current to function.

“I guess somebody at Fermilab is going to plug this damn thing in, turn it on and my watch will stop working, everyone’s hearing aids are going to cross the room,” Otis said with a laugh.

‘I have no idea. Turn it on and the Martians will take an interest in it.

Fermilab officials plan to use the magnet in a physics experiment called Muon g-2 that will study subatomic particles in their lab in Batavia, outside of Chicago.

The experiment will study the properties of muons, subatomic particles that only live 2.2 millionths of a second.

Celebrity: The gigantic electromagnet attracted attention wherever it went on the long journey

Celebrity: The gigantic electromagnet attracted attention wherever it went on the long journey

Delicate: The magnet could not be bent more than about an eighth of an inch without irreparably damaging the coils

Delicate: The magnet could not be bent more than about an eighth of an inch without irreparably damaging the coils

The results of the experiment could create new discoveries in particle physics, said Chris Polly, Muon g-2 project manager at Fermilab.

The towering magnet is a hand from New York, where it was constructed in the 1990s from aluminum and steel by scientists at the Brookhaven National Lab on eastern Long Island.

It contains superconducting coils, and at the time of its construction was the largest electromagnet in the world.

The scientists at Brookhaven no longer needed the electromagnet, and shipping it to the Midwest for around $ 3 million was cheaper than the alternative.

Building an entirely new electromagnet could have cost as much as $ 30 million, Polly estimated.

In any case, at least they didn’t have to pay tolls on the parts of the journey that won out overland.

“We have been assured that we do not have to pay a toll, but we are waiting to see if we receive the notice of violation in the mail. That would be pretty hard to dispute, ”said Fermilab spokesman Andre Salles, who was among the magnet’s travel companions for about 10 days of the trip.

Moving the thing, however, was in some ways as complicated and tricky a maneuver as building it.

Attraction: Caleb Bustin, 9, of Warrenville, Illinois, watches from the fifteenth floor of Wilson Hall as the electromagnet completes its epic journey

Attraction: Caleb Bustin, 9, of Warrenville, Illinois, watches from the fifteenth floor of Wilson Hall as the electromagnet completes its epic journey

Small beginnings: The 50-foot-wide electromagnet is loaded onto a specially adapted truck at the Brookhaven National Laboratory site on Long Island, New York

Humble beginnings: The 50-foot-wide electromagnet is loaded onto a specially adapted truck at the Brookhaven National Laboratory site on Long Island, New York

It couldn’t be taken apart or twisted more than an eighth of an inch without irreparably damaging the coils, Polly said.

It began its journey in late June, floating by barge along the east coast in the Gulf of Mexico – where it passed a tropical depression – then up the Mississippi River, where it was photographed drifting past the arch. from St. Louis en route to Illinois.

“We had to hurry and cross the Gulf of Mexico and really sink the tug,” said Terry Emmert Jr., vice president of Emmert International, recalling the race to avoid the storm. His company moved the magnet across the country.

Earlier in the trip, he spent nearly a week docked in Norfolk, Va. Due to inclement weather, but the team accompanying him found a welcome diversion.

“The harbor was across from a minor league baseball stadium, so the barge crew spent the entire week there,” Salles said.

Just south of Chicago, he was lifted out of the water and strapped to a specially designed 16-axle flatbed truck for his final stop.

It traveled at just 5 to 15 mph, with a giant bumper sticker letting puzzled onlookers know it was about “driving the discovery in particle physics.”

It was a night owl that traveled after dark when the roads weren’t so congested, performing during the day in a Costco parking lot on the outskirts of Bolingbrook and in a forest preserve.

Progress: Worker walks under the electromagnet as he crosses Illinois to the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, where it will be used to study particles

Progress: Worker walks under the electromagnet as he crosses Illinois to the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, where it will be used to study particles

Fans: 'Oh look, they found a flying saucer!'  Retired software developer Chris Otis recalled thinking when he saw the massive disc-shaped device

Fans: ‘Oh look, they found a flying saucer!’ Retired software developer Chris Otis remembered thinking when he saw the massive disc-shaped device

Fortunately, no damage was done along the way. “Everything went as well as we could have wished,” said Salles.

The magnet had its own Twitter hashtag ((hash) bigmove) so fans could keep up. And a website specially designed with GPS to track the magnet has become Fermilab’s most popular page.

As the news spread, thousands of people came out to watch it progress. Some were seated on garden chairs. Others came to discuss with the scientists. Televised news helicopters circled above us.

With a police escort, he finally entered the suburban Chicago lab shortly after 4 a.m. Friday with an “oversized load” sign and a waving American flag.

During the Friday night celebration, Fermilab hosted a community open house as well as magnetic experiences and lessons for the children.

The building where the magnet will ultimately be used is still under construction, so the magnet should be operational in 2014.


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