How Smart Structures Will Work

Above, MR fluid prior to magnetization. Below, the fluid turned into a solid after it was magnetized. Notice the shiny surface of the liquid in the top photo and the dull surface in the bottom photo.

What is MR Fluid

Looking at it in a beaker, MR fluid doesn't seem like such a revolutionary substance. It's a gray, oily liquid that's about three times denser than water. It's not too exciting at first glance, but MR fluid is actually quite amazing to watch in action.

A simple demonstration by David Carlson, a physicist at the North Carolina lab, shows the liquid's ability to transform to solid in milliseconds. He pours the liquid into the cup and stirs it around with a pencil to show it's liquid. He then places a magnet to the bottom of the cup, and the liquid instantly turns to a near-solid. To further demonstrate that it's turned to a solid, he holds the cup upside down, and none of the MR fluid drops out.

How Smart Structures Will Work

Typical MR fluid consists of these three parts:

  • Carbonyl Iron Particles -- 20 to 40 percent of the fluid is made of these soft iron particles that are just 3 to 5 micrometers in diameter. A package of dry carbonyl iron particles looks like black flour because the particles are so fine.
  • A Carrier Liquid -- The iron particles are suspended in a liquid, usually hydrocarbon oil. Water is often used in demonstrating the fluid.
  • Proprietary Additives -- The third component of MR fluid is a secret, but Lord says these additives are put in to inhibit gravitational settling of the iron particles, promote particle suspension, enhance lubricity, modify viscosity and inhibit wear.

So, what is it that gives MR fluid its unique ability to transform from liquid to solid and from solid to liquid quicker than you can blink an eye? The carbonyl iron particles. When a magnet is applied to the liquid, these tiny particles line up to make the fluid stiffen into a solid. This is caused by the dc magnetic field, making the particles lock into a uniform polarity. How hard the substance becomes depends on the strength of the magnetic field. Take away the magnet, and the particles unlock immediately.

While scientists have just recently discovered many new applications for MR fluid, it has actually been around for more than 50 years. Jacob Rabinow is credited with discovering MR fluid in the 1940s while working at the U.S. National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology).

Until about 1990, there were few applications for MR fluid because there was no way to properly control it. Today, there are digital signal processors and fast, cheap computers that can control the magnetic field applied to the fluid. Applications for this technology include Nautilus exercise equipment, clothes washing machine dampers, shock absorbers for cars and advanced leg prosthetics.

In the next section, we will look at the seismic applications of this MR technology, which may have the biggest impact on saving lives and preventing the collapse of buildings.