Tag Archives: IBM Almaden Research Center

World’s smallest magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of a single atom

While not science’s sleekest machine, this microscope was able to capture M.R.I. scans of single atoms. Credit: IBM Research

Such a messy looking thing—it makes me feel better about my housekeeping. In any event, it’s fascinating to think this scanning tunneling microscope as seen in the above can actually act as an MRI device and create an image of a single atom.

There’s a wonderful article in the New York Times about the work but I’m starting first with a July 1, 2019 news item on Nanowerk,

Researchers at the Center for Quantum Nanoscience (QNS) within the Institute for Basic Science (IBS) at Ewha Womans University [Seoul, South Korea) have made a major scientific breakthrough by performing the world’s smallest magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). In an international collaboration with colleagues from the US, QNS scientists used their new technique to visualize the magnetic field of single atoms.

A July 2, 2019 IBS news release (also on EurekAlert but published July 1, 2019), which originated the news item, provides some insight into the research,

An MRI is routinely done in hospitals nowadays as a part of imaging for diagnostics. MRI’s detect the density of spins – the fundamental magnets in electrons and protons – in the human body. Traditionally, billions and billions of spins are required for an MRI scan. The new findings, published today [July 1, 2019] in the journal Nature Physics, show that this process is now also possible for an individual atom on a surface. To do this, the team used a Scanning Tunneling Microscope, which consists of an atomically sharp metal tip that allows researchers to image and probe single atoms by scanning the tip across the surface.

The two elements that were investigated in this work, iron and titanium, are both magnetic. Through precise preparation of the sample, the atoms were readily visible in the microscope. The researchers then used the microscope’s tip like an MRI machine to map the three-dimensional magnetic field created by the atoms with unprecedented resolution. In order to do so, they attached another spin cluster to the sharp metal tip of their microscope. Similar to everyday magnets, the two spins would attract or repel each other depending on their relative position. By sweeping the tip spin cluster over the atom on the surface, the researchers were able to map out the magnetic interaction. Lead author, Dr. Philip Willke of QNS says: “It turns out that the magnetic interaction we measured depends on the properties of both spins, the one on the tip and the one on the sample. For example, the signal that we see for iron atoms is vastly different from that for titanium atoms. This allows us to distinguish different kinds of atoms by their magnetic field signature and makes our technique very powerful.”

The researchers plan to use their single-atom MRI to map the spin distribution in more complex structures such as molecules and magnetic materials. “Many magnetic phenomena take place on the nanoscale, including the recent generation of magnetic storage devices.” says Dr. Yujeong Bae also of QNS, a co-author in this study. “We now plan to study a variety of systems using our microscopic MRI.” The ability to analyze the magnetic structure on the nanoscale can help to develop new materials and drugs. Moreover, the research team wants to use this kind of MRI to characterize and control quantum systems. These are of great interest for future computation schemes, also known as quantum computing

“I am very excited about these results. It is certainly a milestone in our field and has very promising implications for future research.” says Prof. Andreas Heinrich, Director of QNS. “The ability to map spins and their magnetic field with previously unimaginable precision, allows us to gain deeper knowledge about the structure of matter and opens new fields of basic research.”

The Center for Quantum Nanoscience, on the campus of Ewha Womans University in Seoul, South Korea, is a world-leading research center merging quantum and nanoscience to engineer the quantum future through basic research. Backed by Korea’s Institute for Basic Science, which was founded in 2011, the Center for Quantum Nanoscience draws on decades of QNS Director Andreas J. Heinrich’s (A Boy and His Atom, IBM, 2013) scientific leadership to lay the foundation for future technology by exploring the use of quantum behavior atom-by-atom on surfaces with highest precision.

You may have noticed that other than a brief mention in the first paragraph (in the Nanowerk news item excerpt), there’s no mention of the US researchers and their contribution to the work.

Interestingly, the July 1, 2019 New York Time article by Knvul Sheikh returns the favour by focusing almost entirely on US researchers while giving the Korean researchers a passing mention (Note: Links have been removed),

Different microscopy techniques allow scientists to see the nucleotide-by-nucleotide genetic sequences in cells down to the resolution of a couple atoms as seen in an atomic force microscopy image. But scientists at the IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif., and the Institute for Basic Sciences in Seoul, have taken imaging a step further, developing a new magnetic resonance imaging technique that provides unprecedented detail, right down to the individual atoms of a sample.

When doctors want to detect tumors, measure brain function or visualize the structure of joints, they employ huge M.R.I. machines, which apply a magnetic field across the human body. This temporarily disrupts the protons spinning in the nucleus of every atom in every cell. A subsequent, brief pulse of radio-frequency energy causes the protons to spin perpendicular to the pulse. Afterward, the protons return to their normal state, releasing energy that can be measured by sensors and made into an image.

But to gather enough diagnostic data, traditional hospital M.R.I.s must scan billions and billions of protons in a person’s body, said Christopher Lutz, a physicist at IBM. So he and his colleagues decided to pack the power of an M.R.I. machine into the tip of another specialized instrument known as a scanning tunneling microscope to see if they could image individual atoms.

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.

The researchers attached magnetized iron atoms to the tip, effectively combining scanning-tunneling microscope and M.R.I. technologies.

When the magnetized tip swept over a metal wafer of iron and titanium, it applied a magnetic field to the sample, disrupting the electrons (rather than the protons, as a typical M.R.I. would) within each atom. Then the researchers quickly turned a radio-frequency pulse on and off, so that the electrons would emit energy that could be visualized. …

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Magnetic resonance imaging of single atoms on a surface by Philip Willke, Kai Yang, Yujeong Bae, Andreas J. Heinrich & Christopher P. Lutz. Nature Physics (2019) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41567-019-0573-x Published 01 July 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.