Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines are great for creating detailed images of a person’s internal organs and tissues.
Using magnets and radio waves, the machines temporarily change how the billions of protons in the person’s body spin. Then they measure and image energy released by these protons once they return to their normal state.
Now, researchers have created a version of an MRI machine that’s so scaled down, it images individual atoms — and the device could help usher in the era of quantum computing.
For their study, which was published on Monday in the journal Nature Physics, researchers from the United States and South Korea attached magnetized iron atoms to the tip of a scanning tunneling microscope, a device used to image and probe individual atoms.
They then swept the microscope’s tip over iron and titanium atoms they’d placed on a magnesium oxide surface. This subjected the atoms to a magnetic field that disrupted their electrons. The team then hit the atoms with a radio wave pulse, and the system imaged the energy the electrons subsequently released.
The researchers believe this new nanoscale imaging technique could lead to the development of new materials and drugs, as well as the creation of better quantum computing systems.
“We can now see something that we couldn’t see before,” researcher Christopher Lutz told The New York Times. “So our imagination can go to a whole bunch of new ideas that we can test out with this technology.”
READ MORE: World’s smallest MRI performed on single atoms [Institute for Basic Science]
More on quantum computing: Russian Scientists Used a Quantum Computer to Turn Back Time