Magnetic resonance imaging is nothing new, but scientists were able to perform an MRI on a single atom. But how?
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Scientists recently captured the smallest MRI ever while scanning an individual atom. The technique successfully reached a breakthrough level of resolution in the world of microscopy, the detailed MRI can reveal single atoms as well as different types of atoms based on their magnetic interactions.
This breakthrough has potential applications in all kinds of fields, like quantum computing where it could be used to design atomic-scale methods of storing info or when it comes to drug development, the ability to control individual atoms could potentially be used to study how proteins fold and then lead to the development of drugs for diseases like Alzheimers.
In a sense, the researchers combined a version of an MRI machine with a special instrument called a scanning tunneling microscope, which turned out to be a match made in microscopy heaven.
An MRI scanner creates an extremely strong magnetic field around whatever it’s trying to image, temporarily re-aligning the protons in your body with that magnetic field. Then the MRI machine pulses the sample (or patient) with a radiofrequency, which pulls the protons slightly out of alignment with the magnetic field. And after the brief radiofrequency pulse is over, the protons snap back into alignment with the field, and the energy that’s released as the protons move back into place with the magnetic field is what is detected and visualized by the machine.
And a scanning tunneling microscope is used for imaging really tiny surfaces, and it can pick up certain properties like size and molecular structure.
So, take the classic MRI, add a scanning tunneling microscope and you’ve got yourself the world’s smallest MRI machine.
Scientists used the magnetized microscope to scan a metal wafer of iron and titanium, and while a magnetic field was applied to the wafer, a radiofrequency pulse was activated and deactivated making the electrons emit energy that could be visualized.
So what does this kind of breakthrough really mean, how is it a step up from previous attempts to capture images of tiny things, and what does it look like? Find out more on this episode of Elements.
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Scientists perform world’s smallest MRI on single atoms
“Scientists attached another spin cluster to the microscope’s tip and passed it over the atomic sample. Like magnets, the spins of the atoms and clusters attracted and repelled each other as the cluster passed from one side to the other. By imaging the magnetic interaction, scientists were able to create an MRI of the individual atoms.”
Scientists Took an M.R.I. Scan of an Atom
“The tip of a scanning tunneling microscope is just a few atoms wide. And it moves along the surface of a sample, it picks up details about the size and conformation of molecules.”
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
“MRIs employ powerful magnets which produce a strong magnetic field that forces protons in the body to align with that field. When a radiofrequency current is then pulsed through the patient, the protons are stimulated, and spin out of equilibrium, straining against the pull of the magnetic field. ”
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