Futuristic scanner zooms in on micro-miniature world of electrons

October 2nd, 2008 - 3:25 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Oct 2 (IANS) Physicists have found a way to zoom in on the tiniest building blocks in existence, thanks to a ‘flaw’ in diamonds that helps monitor magnetic signals from electrons and atomic nuclei.The new work represents a dramatic sharpening of the basic approach used in nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which discern chemical structures and images inside human bodies by scanning billions of individual nuclei.

The new diamond-based magnetic sensor could enable novel forms of imaging, marrying NMR’s noninvasive nature with atomic-scale spatial resolution, potentially benefiting fields ranging from materials science, spintronics and quantum information to structural biology, neuroscience and biomedicine.

The futuristic technique could help scientists peer into proteins, map the structure of impossibly intricate molecules, closely observe the dynamics of microscopic biochemical processes, monitor the activity of neural circuits, or use single electrons and nuclei for storing and processing information.

“Although some existing magnetic field sensors have higher sensitivity, they probe magnetic fields over large volumes of space,” said Mikhail D. Lukin, professor of physics at Harvard University faculty of arts and sciences, according to a Harvard press release.

“The combination of excellent sensitivity and nanoscale spatial resolution that we demonstrate is completely unique. Potentially, it may allow one to image single nuclei in individual molecules,” he added.

The collaborative research, led by Lukin and Harvard physicists Amir Yacoby and Ronald L. Walsworth, involved scientists from Harvard, the Smithsonian Institution, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Pittsburgh.

Accompanying this work is a report from scientists at the University of Stuttgart who have obtained the first scanning images using a diamond magnetic sensor.

“This is a case where the sum of two contributions is really greater than their parts,” said Lukin. “Together, they really jump-start a new research field”.

Some of these applications were published recently online in the journal Nature Physics.

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