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How a 50-year-old NASA invention could change the way we fight cancer

Ferrofluid really is the stuff of science fiction. It was created at NASA as a way to move fuel in space, and someday soon, it may be used to pilot medicine through your body.

This bizarre good is made of three ingredients: magnetic nanoparticles, like iron oxide; a special coating that keeps the particles from clumping together; and a water-based or oil-based liquid. What makes ferrofluid “magical” is that you can use a simple magnet to move it around from a distance, without using pumps or wires.


Ferrofluid is “activated” by magnets.
Photo by Cory Zapatka / The Verge

The first ferrofluid was invented by a NASA engineer named Steve Papell in the early 1960s. His idea was that if you add these magnetic nanoparticles to fuel, you can move it around in zero gravity with a magnetic field. That didn’t really pan out. But since then, ferrofluids have been used far and wide. Today, you can find ferrofluids in speakers, hard drives, and skateboards. But the future of biomedicine is where things get really exciting.

Scientists like Thomas Webster, the director of the Nanomedicine Laboratory at Northeastern University, are looking at the ways ferrofluid can kill cancer cells, fight drug-resistant infections, and even help neurons communicate with each other. Watch the video above to delve into the sci-fi world of ferrofluid — and enjoy some hypnotizing goo along the way.

And if you want to experiment with ferrofluid, watch the video below, where Verge video director Cory Zapatka and supervising director Tom Connors discuss the process of working with ferrofluid and show some shots that didn’t quite make the cut.


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