Helicopter used to move magnet Scientific instrument to be house at UMBC

April 06, 1997|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

The early-morning quiet at the University of Maryland Baltimore County gave way yesterday to the roar of a giant twin-rotor helicopter, called in to move a weighty scientific instrument closer to its new home.

A 9,600-pound superconducting electromagnet -- as big as an elevator car, and part of a $2 million nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer -- was lifted from a parking lot into a courtyard beside UMBC's Chemistry/Physics Building.

Federal Aviation Administration safety officials required the evacuation of six buildings and a 100-foot corridor from the parking lot to the science building.

The equipment will be used by scientists and students at UMBC to map the atomic structure of proteins, including those of the virus that causes AIDS.

The high resolution and improved sensitivity of the new device "are really key to the problems we're focusing on right now," said Dr. Michael F. Summers, 39. He is an associate investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at UMBC, and a professor of chemistry and biochemistry.

Using two similar, but smaller, spectrometers, UMBC researchers have mapped three of the six HIV proteins whose structures have been characterized by scientists.

"With a stronger magnet we should be able to look at the intact proteins, rather than having to cut the things into pieces," Summers said.

When completed in about two months, the UMBC spectrometer will be the largest in any U.S. academic research facility. The only one like it is owned by a Boston pharmaceutical company.

Summers said the new spectrograph is similar to the nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines widely used to provide 3-D views of soft tissues without surgery or X-rays.

But UMBC's machine can image far smaller structures, revealing the complex atomic architecture of living proteins.

The giant magnet was flown on a Boeing 747 cargo jet from Germany to New York, then trucked to Baltimore. Too big, heavy and delicate to be lifted by crane or wheeled into the building erected to house it, the magnet had to be helicoptered across campus, and lowered onto "air skates" that suspended it on a cushion of air.

Pub Date: 4/06/97

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