U magnet research considers moving

Tucked into the bluffs alongside the Mississippi River – 50 feet from where the Interstate 35W bridge fell – the researchers at the University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Applications in Magnetic Resonance have seen a stark change since the collapse.

A number of concerns have arisen among researchers and University personnel alike about the future of the lab. The lab has contracts with biomedical companies among other research grants, all of which are in jeopardy if research stalls, professor of Radiology Bruce Hammer said.

“I just hope that I don’t lose my contracts. Ö I don’t want them to start heading off to other people because we can’t deliver,” he said. “It took me years to build up relationships with these companies.”

The lab averages $60,000 to $100,000 per year in research contracts with local companies, Hammer said.

CIA-MR has three magnets on site, used for various research projects. A magnet used to simulate different gravity levels is among those at the lab.

There are only three such magnets in the world. The other two are in France and Japan, Hammer said.

Concerns about the future of research are rooted in problems stemming from ground vibrations from the demolition of the remaining bridge structure and construction of the new one, Hammer said.

The magnets are kept at such a cold temperature (452 degrees below zero) Hammer said there is a possibility the magnets could be damaged during construction.

According to Hammer, the magnet capable of simulating zero gravity presents the greatest level of risk as it is made of a more brittle material than the others.

Each magnet costs $400,000 and there is between $1.5 million and $2 million of equipment in the lab, Hammer said.

While construction of the new bridge will not require the space currently occupied by the lab, the Minnesota Department of Transportation said research will not be able to continue while bridge construction is in progress, University Real Estate Office director Sue Weinberg said.

Despite MnDOT’s stance on the issue, Hammer said he spoke with the magnet manufacturers, and they said research should be able to continue, although they expressed concern over the more brittle magnet.

“Nobody to my knowledge has built a functioning MR lab next to a bridge that was going up or coming down,” Hammer said. “I feel more confident that we can continue, but I’m not 100 percent certain that it’s the best environment.”

Moving the lab, if necessary, presents another list of problems, Hammer said. It takes researchers two or three weeks to shut down the magnets and another two to three months to get them back in working order.

Hammer estimated moving the lab would cost $200,000.

Lorelee Wederstrom, director of the office of facilities with the Academic Health Center, said there is currently no vacant space for Hammer’s lab through the AHC.

Wederstrom said since research will seemingly be able to continue during demolition, the University has time to find a space to move the lab. Whether the University will build a new lab or try to find an existing structure to house the magnets is still being discussed.

“(We’ll) see if there isn’t some other area where he could collaborate with his work,” she said. “That’s something that’s going to take a little bit of time.”

Ray Voelker, director at the Office of Space Management, said the University is “looking at some interim steps, and it’s not clear to me whether he’ll be able to go back there or not.”

If moved, placement of the lab poses another problem. The magnets produce a magnetic field that extends outside of the rooms where they are held, Hammer said.

“They’d have a very difficult time putting us into an existing building where there’s offices close by,” he said. “If someone is walking with a pacemaker you don’t want that to be affected.”

While no single portion of research at the University will hinder the University’s strategic positioning plan, Hammer said, a stall in operations at the lab could ultimately be detrimental to that goal.

“Obviously we’re not the biggest player, we’re just part of the big picture,” Hammer said. “It definitely won’t help the University, but it’s not going to cripple them either.”

Complications with research will also affect graduate students who are working toward graduation.

Fourth-year biomedical engineering graduate student Bill Scott said he has lost a week-and-half’s worth of research time since the collapse.

“If it forces us to move, eventually then that may cost me a few months,” he said. “Any prolonged amount of time where I can’t use the magnets would probably have a negative impact on my graduation date.”

Apart from concerns over the magnets themselves, data acquired during construction could be altered.

“Any imaging work, if they’re going to be building a new bridge, is going to be completely compromised by any vibrations and other such disturbances,” Scott said.

Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL- Minneapolis, said accommodating Hammer and other researchers at the lab should be a major concern of the University.

“I don’t think this is an idle threat. If (Hammer) can’t do his research for several years, there’s no way he would consider staying here,” Kahn said. “I think the University should treat this as seriously as it would (the) loss of a top football coach or football player. I would treat it more seriously.”