What Is Ferrofluid? Trippy Microphotographs Illustrate Magnetic Phenomenon

Ferrofluid: Psychedelic

All photos: Linden Gledhill

Some might mistake ferrofluid for something only possible through computer-generated graphics or unfathomable alien technology, but rest assured — this bizarre liquid is a real thing.

Ferrofluid is composed of tiny magnetic particles of iron suspended in oil mixed with a soapy surfactant that binds the iron and oil together. In its non-magnetized state, ferrofluid looks like a simple, opaque black liquid, but once this black goo comes into contact with a magnetic field, it temporarily becomes solid (and sometimes spikey, as in the image above).

The bizarre shapes are the result of a trio of forces interacting and pulling against each other — gravity, an active magnetic field and the surface tension of the oil. Watch this video for a more in-depth explanation of how these sublime spikes are formed.

Ferrofluid was invented in 1963 by NASA as a rocket fuel suitable for weightless environments, though it has since gone on to find other useful applications. It's not uncommon to find small amounts of it inside computer hard drives, speakers, motors or even in biomedical settings. Practical uses aside, it's also downright hypnotizing to watch!

Ferrofluid metal

One photographer who harnesses the sublime beauty of ferrofluid is Linden Gledhill, a scientist who works at a pharmaceutical company that makes cancer and diabetes drugs.

"I've spent my life exploring science as a professional biochemist, and in my spare time, I've continued this exploration wherever my curiosity takes me," Gledhill tells MNN. "It was natural to record this exploration with photography, and by doing this I hope to stimulate this exploration in others."

Gledhill's other photo work includes examinations of butterfly wing scales, snowflakes and interference patterns, so exploring the microscopic landscapes of ferrofluid was a logical next step.

"I was looking for new materials to work with and [ferrofluid] can be modified in so many ways as a thin film or bulk liquid," Gledhill explains. "It forms strange shapes and mazes when constrained between glass plates — what more can you ask for?"

Circuit-like ferrofluid

Beyond his creative endeavors, photography also allows Gledhill to document his ferrofluid experiments. In the images below, we see a series of ferrofluid spikes that turned brittle and misshapen over a period of two weeks as the suspension liquid dried out in a magnetized state. Even if you took away the magnetized force, this "petrified ferrofluid," as Gledhill calls it, will only collapse into a liquid state once it is redissolved with a liquid.

Metal-like ferrofluid

Another optically interesting quality of ferrofluid is that even though the substance is naturally black, a careful lighting setup can make it appear as silver or mirror-like:

Spikey ferrofluid

Gledhill has two different camera setups depending on what kind of shots he's trying to achieve. For typical macrophotographs (like the one above), he uses his Canon EOS 5D Mark II paired with a macro lens. For microphotographs, (like the one below), he attaches his Canon to a reflected light microscope that allows for magnification up to 150X.

Circuit-like ferrofluid

Continue below to see more of Gledhill's microscopic views of ferrofluid, and be sure to check out more of his work on his website and Flickr.

Psychedelic ferrofluid
Pink brain-like ferrofluid
Tile-like ferrofluid
Ferrofluid pattern
Orb-like ferrofluid
Microscopic ferrofluid
Cosmic-like ferrofluid
Colorful ferrofluid

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