A major technology trend in electric motors today is that of big science, according to Rick Halstead, president at Empire Magnetics. His company makes hybrid permanent-magnet step and servomotors for specialty applications in wet or hazardous environments and even applications subject to vacuums and radiation.
“Just consider research facilities built around beamlines—multi-billion-dollar accelerator-physics laboratories with large research teams. Beamline locations include nearly all U.S. National labs and more internationally. These facilities’ impact is just becoming evident in the marketplace, but the change is coming,” said Halstead.
Case in point: At the Advanced Light Source located at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, researchers use electrons to generate high-energy X rays.
“These short-wave rays allow imaging on a scale impossible with visible light,” said Halstead. Research teams are using this technology to view molecules to design new medications. “Instead of randomly trying different compounds to see what effects they have on a disease, researchers can image a pathogen and then design molecules to attack it.”
New nanotechnology makes it possible to produce the molecule. In fact, thanks to such intentional (no longer random) efforts, some researchers think they are on track to cure the flu.
Likewise, at the Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC), researchers are using macromolecular crystallography to study biological molecules such as proteins, viruses and nucleic acids (RNA and DNA) to a resolution higher than five Angstroms—and investigate the exact mechanisms by which these macromolecules carry out functions in living cells and organisms.
In short, as the practical value of these beamline facilities becomes evident, researchers are installing more machines to further leverage existing equipment.
“While the images may be operating at nanoscale, support equipment is based on leading-edge technology. That’s why micro-position motion systems that operate in vacuum and withstand radiation are key support items,” Halstead added. These units must be highly repeatable and (given the cost of beam time) reliable.
Consider how the Neutron beam facility in Australia recently had a mechanical failure of a shaft coupling. It took three days to remove shielding blocks before technicians could work on the replacement. The cost was several millions of dollars in lost beam time.
But with the ability to image molecules and even atoms comes a convergence of technologies. “If you are building structures of carbon molecules, is it mechanical engineering—as new super-strong materials? Is it biology—as new antibodies? Is it optics—as new crystal systems to manipulate light? Is it communications—in the form of optical amplifiers? This list continues and is growing rapidly,” said Halstead. The impact on everyday lives—and the unique requirements these advanced facilities have for motion components such as precision linear actuators—is just becoming evident.