Science 3 min read

Magnetic Field of a Single Atom Captured in Image for the First Time

In a world's first, scientists were able to capture in an image the magnetic field of an atom using the smallest MRI machine to date.

Image courtesy of Shutterstuck

Image courtesy of Shutterstuck

In a world’s first, the researchers at the Center for Quantum Nanoscience (QNS) in South Korea have captured an image of an atom’s magnetic field. Since a single atom is so small, the image was captured using the world’s smallest magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine.

Not only does this provide a new way to interact with matter on a quantum level, but the industrial applications of such quantum phenomenon are endless. This ranges from a simple laser to quantum computing.

The scientists described how they achieve this impressive feat in their publication in Nature Physics.

Using an MRI Machine to Capture a Single Atom

MRI machines are designed to measure the relative densities of spins – the source of the magnetic force between electron and protons. An average machine requires billions of spins to create an image.

The process is the same at the macro level when trying to capture the magnetic field of a single atom. The researchers had to figure out a way to detect a single magnetic field among billions of others.

Using a scanning tunneling microscope (STM), whose tip is as sharp as a single atom, they interacted with the atoms of iron and titanium. The atoms became visible under the STM thanks to its magnetic activity and the precise placement on a magnesium oxide surface.

All that was left was to capture the atoms’ magnetic field.

Read More: New Research: Some People Can Sense Magnetic Fields

MRI scans of a single atom and its magnetic field | Philip Willke et al

To do this, the researchers attached an additional magnetically active spin cluster to the STM’s metal tip. Then, as previously done, they passed the microscope over the atom again.

This time, the researchers could record the repulsion or pull of the atom’s magnetic field, similar to how magnets of same or opposite charge act under the STM. The result was an incredibly detailed 3D view of the magnetic field being generated by a single atom.

Even better, the way the iron and titanium atoms interacted with the spin cluster on the tip was very different. As a result, the researchers could conveniently determine the type of atom being passed over from its interaction.

In a statement, lead author of the study, Dr. Phillip Willke said:

“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 implication of the Technique

With the new imaging technique, scientists can now explore even the most complex structures on the nanoscale. From the spin distribution of atoms within chemical compounds to precise control of magnetic materials, the applications are endless.

“Many magnetic phenomena take place on the nanoscale, including the recent generation of magnetic storage devices,” said study co-author Dr. Yujeong Bae. “We now plan to study a variety of systems using our microscopic MRI.”

The QNS team also hope that their technique could further the control and development of quantum systems of computing or communications.

Read More: Researchers Develop Artificial Atoms to Boost Quantum Technology

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Sumbo Bello

Sumbo Bello is a creative writer who enjoys creating data-driven content for news sites. In his spare time, he plays basketball and listens to Coldplay.

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