Support independent journalism - become a member

Islay: A Quantum magnetometer at Finlaggan

Publication: The Ileach

During the first week in October, researchers at the University of Strathclyde, having developed a specific piece of equipment, installed it at Finlaggan Farm. 

Dr Marcin Mrozowski, who put the Islay system together with the solar panel (right), with battery in the large black box underneath | Photo by Angus Bell | Licensed for use on Scottish Beacon | All rights reserved

The device will continuously measure tiny changes in the Earth’s magnetic field, reporting this data back to the university for analysis.

The device, known as a quantum magnetometer, is a new way of measuring ‘space weather’, the effect of solar storms on the Earth’s magnetic field, which can be thought of as a Northern Lights early warning system. 

Over the next three years, sensors of this type will be installed across the UK, allowing scientists to obtain a detailed picture of these effects.

The device itself is about the size of a shoebox and comes with a solar panel to power it. Whether this will be enough for an Islay winter will be part of the test.

The measurements will be compared with those taken simultaneously by the British Geographical Survey at their geomagnetic reference observatory at Eskdalemuir in the Scottish Borders.

Finlaggan was chosen as a relatively remote location, away from the magnetic field noise created by humans going about their business, but it also helps that the farmer, Angus Bell, has been working as part of the Strathclyde team for the past two years.

The quantum magnetometer uses a gas of caesium atoms, hermetically sealed within a micro-machined box about the size of a fingertip.

Light from a miniature laser probes these atoms to obtain a magnetic resonance signal, similar to a medical magnetic resonance imaging scan, but carried out in a much lower magnetic field, in this case, Earth’s naturally occurring magnetic field. 

This method combines high sensitivity with absolute calibration, allowing the Earth’s field to be measured at the parts-per-billion level.

The Strathclyde University team includes Dr Stuart Ingleby, Dr Marcin Mrozowski, Dr Dominic Hunter, Professor Angus Bell, Dr Paul Griffin and Professor Erling Riis.

As well as precise measurements of space weather, magnetometers of this type can be used to test more exotic theories of physics, such as cosmological particles, including magnetic monopoles and axions, which may form the mysterious ‘dark matter’, missing from the observed mass of galaxies.

These new theories are speculative, but with equipment of this type, they can be investigated without expensive particle-collider experiments. 

The University of Strathclyde team is developing other practical applications of quantum magnetometers, such as for medical instrumentation and for use in the large-scale production of electric vehicle batteries.

Previous: Building Community on Four Wheels

by Samar Jamal, Greater Govanhill