Scientists capture MRI scan of a single ATOM using a microscopic needle in breakthrough toward quantum data storage
- Using a new MRI technique researchers were able to image a single atom
- A tiny microscope with a needle just a few atoms wide mimics an MRI machine
- The results provide an unprecedented look into the atomic world
- Technology could be used to develop futuristic quantum computers
Sometimes the smallest breakthroughs are actually the most pivotal.
In an unprecedented demonstration, researchers from the U.S. and South Korea were able to use a technology that’s nearly identical to today’s full-size magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines to take a miniature snapshot of sub-cellular life.
The method involves the use of a highly specialized device called a scanning and tunneling microscope, which is able to take images of atomic structures by scanning a sharp metal tip over a surface.
Using a novel new technique, researchers were able to get a snapshot of a single atom. The scans (shown) reveal the varying strengths of the atom’s magnetic field
HOW CAN SCIENTISTS IMAGE AN ATOM?
Using a new type of MRI technique, scientists were able to take a snapshot of an individual atom.
Using a special device called a scanning and tunneling microscope researchers probed a piece of iron and titanium with a needle that was just a few atoms wide.
Like a regular MRI, researchers then applied a magnetic field and turned radio waves on and off to image the electrons in an atom.
The technique could be applied toward the development of quantum computers that promise to vastly increase computing power.
By attaching magnetized iron atoms to the tip of the microscope, which is just a few atoms wide, researchers were able to reproduce a process that takes place in a full-size MRI machine — some of which weigh ten times as much as a car — on the atomic level.
MRI machines, which can be used to image a person’s musculature, scan for tumors, diagnose dementia, identify strokes and more, work by applying a magnetic field over a subject to disrupt the protons spinning inside the nucleus of atoms.
A radio frequency is then emitted that causes the protons to spin perpendicularly to the magnetic pulse.
Once this process is stopped, the protons return to normal, releasing energy that is then capture to by sensors and made into an image.
Similarly to the microscopic version’s full-size counterpart, scientists are able to apply a magnetic field over a subject — in this case a strip of iron and titanium — and then use the infinitesimally small tip of the scanning and tunneling microscope to turn a radio signal on and off.
The process makes it possible to image the electrons — as opposed to protons in the macro version — of a singular atom and is fully described in a recent paper published in Nature Physics.
While atomic breakthroughs like researchers’ new MRI technique will have applications towards biology, scientists say one of the biggest boons will be in the development of increasingly sophisticated nanotechnology.
In particular, technology used to glean pictures of single atoms would be useful in developing atomic-level storage for a future crop of quantum computers.
‘Many magnetic phenomena take place on the nanoscale, including the recent generation of magnetic storage devices,’ said Dr. Yujeong Bae, a co-author in this study, in a statement.
The process is described in a paper published in Nature Physics and promises to give scientists new insights in the atomic and subatomic worlds. The process is illustrated in the artist’s impression above
Though they’re still somewhat theoretical, computers that harness mysterious science and physics on the quantum scale show promise in vastly accelerating the amount of calculations possible compared to today’s traditional silicon-based computers.
In practice, that means vastly expanding the capabilities to predict complex weather patterns or even the ability of artificial intelligence to diagnose and predict disease.
Using the new microscopic MRI technique, researchers would feasibly be able to see the behavior and structure of atoms that was previously invisible, allowing them to help design and conceptualize the futuristic machines.
Today’s tech giants, including Intel, Google, and AT&T continue to ramp up investments in the development quantum technology, hoping to produce a machine that can be made at scale.
WHAT IS A QUANTUM COMPUTER AND HOW DOES IT WORK?
The key to a quantum computer is its ability to operate on the basis of a circuit not only being ‘on’ or ‘off’, but occupying a state that is both ‘on’ and ‘off’ at the same time.
While this may seem strange, it’s down to the laws of quantum mechanics, which govern the behaviour of the particles which make up an atom.
At this micro scale, matter acts in ways that would be impossible at the macro scale of the universe we live in.
Quantum mechanics allows these extremely small particles to exist in multiple states, known as ‘superposition’, until they are either seen or interfered with.
A scanning tunneling microscope shows a quantum bit from a phosphorus atom precisely positioned in silicon. Scientists have discovered how to make the qubits ‘talk to one another
A good analogy is that of a coin spinning in the air. It cannot be said to be either a ‘heads’ or ‘tails’ until it lands.
The heart of modern computing is binary code, which has served computers for decades.
While a classical computer has ‘bits’ made up of zeros and ones, a quantum computer has ‘qubits’ which can take on the value of zero or one, or even both simultaneously.
One of the major stumbling blocks for the development of quantum computers has been demonstrating they can beat classical computers.
Google, IBM, and Intel are among companies competing to achieve this.
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