Bio Magnets and Coating Safety
Bio Magnets and Coating Safety
My first implant was a silicone coated magnet from Steve Haworth installed in my left ring finger. A local piercing artist had the Haworth magnets in stock and upgraded me on a Saturday morning. Finger magnets allow grinders to sense magnetic fields because the tiny magnet under the nerve-rich skin will twist when passing through a stationary magnetic field and vibrate in an alternating magnetic field.
Like many grinders —people who get technological implants to exceed human perception and abilities— this magnet was the first in a series of implants, and for a good reason. A magnet provides a new sense, in the most real meaning of the word. Strong magnetic fields are all around us if you know where to look. There are no batteries to charge, and there are no wires to bend, there is no computer. They work by sitting there and being magnets.
An implantable magnet differs from the one holding a birthday card to my refrigerator in a few ways. First, they are high-grade neodymium, N45-rated or better. Second, they are small enough that they will not obstruct daily life from under the skin. Third, and most important, they are coated to keep our bodies from breaking it down, which it will do with a passion since neodymium is not something the body wants inside it.
The Haworth magnet, which I still use, relies on a layer of implant-grade silicone covering a high-grade neodymium magnet. Silicone is a time-tested coating which many grinders feel safe putting into their bodies. Now, as we push boundaries, we want something purpose-made. Enter titanium-nitride, abbreviated as TiN, not to be confused with tin, which uses the chemical symbol Sn. TiN coating is thin, magnetically transparent, bioinert, and tougher than clearance-rack beef jerky. You have already seen TiN on the drill bits which have a goldish color. Sometimes they are also marketed as ceramic tool bits.
One more reason this material is so perfect is it is applied at room temperature, which is very important since neodymium magnets permanently lose magnetism at high heat. One garage laboratory was able to coat some, but they had a vacuum rig and sputtering equipment, so maybe this is not something the average hacker/maker will be doing this weekend.
Why isn’t every grinder magnet coming with this miraculous coating? It turns out that it’s damnably hard to get a perfect film. My third implant was a TiN-coated magnet, but I was in the unlucky portion who suffered from an imperfect surface, and I paid to have the same piercing artist cut it out of my finger. The unfortunate division I fell into was nearly half of the magnets, and they failed within months of implantation.
There is a new kid on the block. A magnet retailer has offered a ten-pack of TiN coated magnets for approximately ten US dollars. Read on before you get your hopes up. A handful of people have already implanted the newest wave of experimental TiN magnets. These magnets are not marketed as implants and every person doing this should already know the associated risks.
At Augmentation Limitless, a series of tests was performed by Jeffery Tibbetts to find the strengths, weakness, and validity of the two most popular implantable magnets, his own model of implant called Pellucid, and the one-dollar model. We all want the titanium model to do well because they are accessible, inexpensive, and powerful.
Sadly, there have been mounting failures in the cheapies tested with a saltwater bath. Soaking the magnets in saltwater causes visible corrosion in the nickel layer under the TiN. Tibbetts doesn’t stop with the usual saltwater test, and he goes on to destructively test all models, even the spendy versions marketed as implants. His blog is worth a read.
I had the good fortune to sit down Jeffrey and pick his brain about his process and the necessity of reliable citizen scientists. In the case of the magnets, there is no definitive procedure everyone follows to report uniform results. Jeffrey would like to see us step away from the slapdash flurry of approximate measurements and estimated figures toward an alliance where people perform uniform experiments and results are cross-examined rather than summarized as, “Works for me,” or “Don’t even think about it.”
Jeffrey gave an example of how the magnets ought to be tested. The procedure was nothing more complicated than, “Put the magnet into 0.9% saline solution and observe for ninety days.” Regular folks joining the citizen science movement is easier than making macaroni and cheese from a box.
I am testing thirty of the magnets in little glass vials on my desk. There is a considerable failure rate by the forty-eight-hour mark. This makes sense. Any damage suffered during shipping, or manufacturing defects should turn up immediately. What is worrisome is that coatings continue to fail weeks after the start of the soak. This is not merely a matter of weeding out the imperfect coatings, this is a trend and suggests that all, or nearly all, the magnets will fail in a short time, which could be briefer than the time it takes to heal from the implantation. So far, more than ninety percent of mine have failed and I have written down the dates on which they failed.
All hope is not lost. TiN magnets, like the one that failed inside me, are still going strong in some people. My podcasting co-host has one in his wrist, and it remains intact and useful a couple of years after implantation. The benefits of this coating are worth pursuing and the citizen scientists pushing this advance, and testing its safety, could make it a reality for everyone.
Unlike soft hobbies, grinding comes with a steep risk factor, but that couples with the ability to make advances in the field just by taking good notes. Grinding is trailblazing, so recording footprints along the way helps people following closely behind.