Scientists perform world's smallest MRI scan on an individual atom
Quantum technology is making pathbreaking changes to medical technology and diagnostic systems.
Have you ever had an MRI scan? Have you ever been in that massive metallic machine, in the hollow cylindrical chamber? Have you ever wondered how an MRI works, precisely? It’s not that complicated. Let us break it down for you: Magnetic Resonance Imaging, aka MRI, is a diagnostic method that uses tube shaped magnets to conduct non-invasive examinations of organs, tissues, and the skeletal system in living organisms.
When an organ needs to be diagnosed, an MRI machine gives doctors high resolution images of the organ in question. How does the machine do this, you may ask? Once again, it’s simpler than it looks - once you enter the cylindrical scanning cavity in an MRI machine, strong magnetic fields and radio waves are created around your body. These waves temporarily charge the hydrogen atoms in your body. Once they return to their normal state, the energy released by these atoms is tracked collectively, and finally captured by the machine on an image.
Clearly, the integral part of the process is the change in the atom - which means, the atom is central to the MRI process. With this in mind, scientists have managed to perform the world’s smallest MRI on a single atom. By scanning an individual atom, they were able to scan the magnetic field of the atom with unprecedented resolution.
A team of scientists from the prestigious Centre for Quantum Nanoscience (QNS) at Ewha Womens University in South Korea came together to experiment and fine tune the process. The team from the world’s largest female institute used the Scanning Tunnelling Microscope, an instrument that images surfaces at an atomic level. The researchers used the microscope’s tip like an MRI machine. It helped them take a three-dimensional image created by the magnetic field of the atom.
Iron and titanium, both magnetic metals, were investigated in this experiment.
Lead author, Dr. Philip Willke of QNS says, “It turns out that the magnetic interaction we measured depends on the properties of spins, the one on the tip and the one on the sample. For example, the signal that we see for iron atoms is vastly different from that for titanium atoms. This allows us to distinguish different kinds of atoms by their magnetic field signature and makes our technique very powerful.”
So how is this breakthrough going to be useful for us?
This technology is expected to help us get a closer look at more complex structures like molecules and magnetic materials. For example, the storage devices that we use show magnetic properties. The technology of using MRI to scan atoms can help us optimise these devices.
The ability to perform microscopic MRI scans helps analyse magnetic structures - produced by atoms - on a nano level. This could lead to better research and knowledge, allowing for the creation of new materials and drugs. This also could lead to leaps forward in quantum computing technology. Since quantum computers involve quantum particles, this technology will help in the characterisation and control of the systems.
'The ability to map spins and their magnetic field with previously unimaginable precision allows us to gain deeper knowledge about the structure of matter and opens new fields of basic research.' said Andreas Heinrich, the Director of QNS.