A team of scientists, led by Professor of Physics and of Applied Physics Amir Yacoby, has developed a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) system that can produce nanoscale images, and may one day allow researchers to peer into the atomic structure of individual molecules. Their work is described in a March 23 paper in Nature Nanotechnology.
“What we’ve demonstrated in this new paper is the ability to get very high spatial resolution, and a fully operational MRI technology,” Yacoby said. “This work is directed toward obtaining detailed information on molecular structure. If we can image a single molecule and identify that there is a hydrogen atom here and a carbon there … we can obtain information about the structure of many molecules that cannot be imaged by any other technique today.”
Though not yet precise enough to capture atomic-scale images of a single molecule, the system already has been used to capture images of single electron spins. As the system is refined, Yacoby said he expects it eventually will be precise enough to peer into the structure of molecules.
While the system designed by Yacoby and colleagues operates in much the same way conventional MRIs do, the similarities end there.
“What we’ve done, essentially, is to take a conventional MRI and miniaturize it,” Yacoby said. “Functionally, it operates in the same way, but in doing that, we’ve had to change some of the components, and that has enabled us to achieve far greater resolution than conventional systems.”
Yacoby said that while conventional systems can achieve resolutions of less than a millimeter, they are effectively limited by the magnetic field gradient they can produce. Since those gradients fade dramatically within just feet, conventional systems built around massive magnets are designed to create a field large enough to image an object — like a human — that may be a meter or more in length.
The nanoscale system devised by Yacoby and colleagues, by comparison, uses a magnet that’s just 20 nanometers in diameter — about 300 times smaller than a red blood cell — but is able to generate a magnetic field gradient 100,000 times larger than even the most powerful conventional systems.