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

Ferrofluid is really part of science fiction. It was created at NASA as a way to move fuel into space, and someday soon, it can be used to pilot medications through your body.

This bizarre well is made of three ingredients: magnetic nanoparticles, such as iron oxide; a special coating that prevents the particles from clumping; and a liquid based on water or oil. What makes ferrofluid "magical" is that you can use a simple magnet to move it from a distance, without using bombs or wires.


The 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 the fuel, you can move it in zero gravity with a magnetic field. That really did not work. But since then, ferrofluids have been used everywhere. Nowadays, you can find ferrofluids in speakers, hard drives and skateboards. But the future of biomedicine is where things get really exciting.

Scientists such as Thomas Webster, director of the Nanomedicine Laboratory at Northeastern University, are studying how 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 ferrofluid science fiction world and enjoy something hypnotizing along the way.

If you want to experiment with ferrofluid, watch the video below, where Verge video director Cory Zapatka and the supervising director, Tom Connors, discuss the process of working with ferrofluid and show some shots that did not achieve the objective.

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