IBM has claimed a breakthrough in nano-scale magnetic resonance imaging by directly detecting for the first time a faint magnetic signal from single electrons buried inside solid samples.
The company said that the development represents a major milestone in the creation of a microscope that can make three-dimensional images of molecules with atomic resolution.
Such a device could have a major impact on the study of materials, ranging from proteins and pharmaceuticals to integrated circuits for which a detailed understanding of the atomic structure is essential.
Knowing the exact location of specific atoms within tiny nano-electronic structures, for example, could enhance circuit and chip designers' insight into their manufacture and performance, according to IBM.
The ability to image the detailed atomic structure of proteins directly would also aid the development of new drugs.
"Throughout history, the ability to see matter more clearly has always enabled important new discoveries and insights," said Daniel Rugar, manager of nano-scale studies at IBM's Almaden Research Centre.
"This new capability should ultimately lead to fundamental advances in nanotechnology and biology."
IBM claimed that it has been working for over a decade to develop nano-scale magnetic resonance imaging technology called magnetic resonance force microscopy (MRFM).
The central feature of MRFM is a silicon 'micro-cantilever' that looks like a miniature diving board and is 1,000 times thinner than a human hair.
It vibrates at a frequency of about 5,000 times a second, and a tiny but powerful magnetic particle attached to the tip attracts or repels individual electrons.
Such technology aims to boost magnetic resonance imaging sensitivity by some 10 million times compared to the medical devices currently used to visualise organs in the human body.
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