Ferrofluid – the strange magnetic substance you have never heard of

We have rocket science to thank for the existence of an alien-looking fluid that is slowly creeping into the creative world.

In the midst of the famous space race in the early 1960’s, NASA rocket scientist Steve Papell was busy with the near-impossible task of finding a way for astronauts to pump rocket fuel into an inlet in a weightless environment. He came up with ferrofluid an ink-black, glossy constituent that combines liquid and magnetic particles, which gives it both liquid and solid properties and a distinctly alien look.

When in the presence of a magnetic field, which overpowers the force of gravity, the magnets in ferrofluid follows the field’s path. The fluid could spiral perfectly down just the outermost ridges of a screw or rise out of a container or off a surface, resulting in a mesmerising show of space-age configurations as the ferrofluid seemingly moves and spikes up on its own according to the magnetic pull.  

Today the intriguing substance is most often used in a variety of applications that keep it in the shadows ­– mostly in mechanics and engineering. Medical science also turned to ferrofluid in 2012 to emulate the natural pumping motion of a human heart.

More recently, Tool, a production company with offices in Los Angeles, New York and London partnered with global communications agency Sid Lee to give ferrofluid a more creative application to promote Acer’s newest gaming PC, Predator.

I wanted to make a dark and mysterious interactive world that the audience would step into and, as a team, we had fun making this world a reality, said Tool’s interactive director, who goes by the moniker Aramique. 

They designed a system that manipulates a series of 43 magnets placed below the liquid’s container and displayed the Predator above. The installation – at New York City’s Four World Trade Centre invited attendees to ask the Predator a question by speaking into a microphone. This brought the slick black liquid to life ostensibly in answer to the question with a series of futuristic patterns and waves, activated by the unique rhythm of each voice. 

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