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Magnetic Monopoles Detected?

Magnetic monopoles, particles that carry a single magnetic pole, have long been hypothesized. Last week, researchers from the Helmholtz Centre Berlin, in cooperation with colleagues from Dresden, St. Andrews, La Plata and Oxford, claimed that they have actually observed magnetic monopoles.

Jonathan Morris, Alan Tennant and colleagues (HZB) undertook a neutron scattering experiment at the Berlin research reactor. The material under investigation was a single crystal of Dysprosium Titanate. This material crystallises in a quite remarkable geometry, the so called pyrochlore-lattice. With the help of neutron scattering Morris and Tennant show that the magnetic moments inside the material had reorganised into so-called „Spin-Spaghetti". This name comes from the ordering of the dipoles themselves, such that a network of contorted tubes (Strings) develops, through which magnetic flux is transported...

During the neutron scattering measurements a magnetic field was applied to the crystal by the researchers. With this field they could influence the symmetry and orientation of the strings. Thereby it was possible to reduce the density of the string networks and promote the monopole dissociation. As a result, at temperatures from 0.6 to 2 Kelvin, the strings are visible and have magnetic monopoles at their ends.


(Magnetic monopole experiment
Neutrons are fired towards the sample, and when a
magnetic field is applied the Dirac strings align against
the field with magnetic monopoles at their ends.
The neutrons scatter from the strings providing data
which show the string properties.)

One caveat that should be attached to this result is a question about the actual observed result. This does not appear to be a discovery of a new, fundamental particle. Instead, it appears describe an exotic state of matter in which the magnetic poles are separated. We'll have to let the physicists sort this one out.

In the meantime, science fiction fans have enjoyed popularizations of the idea of magnetic monopoles, and the possible uses for them. Fans of Larry Niven's Known Space stories, in particular, have been looking for shovels-full of them for space tech.

Nick Sohl was coming home. ...He had gone mining in Saturn's rings, with a singleship around him and a shovel in his hand (for the magnets used to pull monopoles from asteroidal iron did look remarkably like shovels)...

A century ago monopoles had been mere theory and conflicting theory at that. Magnetic theory said that a north magnetic pole could not exist apart from a south magnetic pole, and vice-versa. Quantum theory implied that they might exist independently.

The first permanent settlements had been blooming among the biggest Belt asteroids when an exploring team found monopoles scattered through the nickel-iron core of an asteroid. Today they were not theory, but a thriving Belt industry. A magnetic field generated by monopoles acts in an inverse linear relationship rather than an inverse-square. In practical terms, a monopole-based motor or instrument will reach much further. Monopoles were valuable where weight was a factor, and in the Belt weight was always a factor. But monopole mining was still a one man operation.
(Read more about Niven's monopole mining)

From Nature via Physorg via Futurismic.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 9/7/2009)

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