A microscope was able to capture MRI scans of single atoms

What might be the world’s smallest magnetic resonance image has been captured using technology that is almost identical to a full-size MRI.

A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner is used to capture images within our body. The invention of this technology is considered one of the biggest breakthroughs in the world of medicine. Things have now involved even further as a nanoparticle entity can be studied through an MRI scanner smaller than a box.

MRI scanners apply magnetic fields and radiofrequency pulses to generate detailed images of internal organs. Scientists at the IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California, and the Institute for Basic Sciences in Seoul used the same basic physics behind the normal-sized MRI scans and applied radiofrequency current to stimulate the protons.

As the protons released energy, the signals could be interpreted into images, developing a new MRI technique. The method used a device called a scanning and tunnelling microscope that can take images of atomic structures by scanning a sharp metal tip over a surface.

The tip of a scanning and tunnelling microscope is just a few atoms wide. Scientists attached iron atoms to the tip of the microscope, and they were able to reproduce the same process that happens when capturing an MRI scan.

As described in the Nature Physics paper: “We find that MRI scans of different atomic species and with different probe tips lead to unique signatures in the resonance images. These signatures reveal the magnetic interactions between the tip and the atom, in particular, magnetic dipolar and exchange interaction.”

The atomic MRI can distinguish neighbouring atoms from each other and reveal which types of atoms are visible depending on their magnetic interactions. Scientists can now see what they couldn’t see before and can test many new concepts.

In the future, this new technology could possibly be used to design atomic-scale methods of storing information for quantum computers and to help scientists develop new medicine.

You can rent or buy the full paper on “Magnetic resonance imaging of single atoms on a surface” here.


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