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Measuring magnetic fields down to the nanometre

EU-funded scientists develop novel magnetometer that can measure down to the atomic scale, paving the way for significant advances in many scientific fields.
Measuring magnetic fields down to the nanometre
Being able to accurately measure magnetic fields is crucial for a wide range of scientific studies, from brain scanning and computing, to detecting underground resources like oil and gas, and even mapping archaeological sites.

The 4-year EU-funded project DIADEMS is working on advancing current technology used to sense magnetic fields to make it even more accurate, down to the smallest scale possible – the nanometre.

A diamond-based magnetometer

In essence, DIADEMS is creating tiny sensors that detect very small magnetic signals. To do this, scientists replace a single carbon atom in an ultrapure single crystal diamond with a nitrogen atom, whilst leaving a neighbouring lattice site void – this creates a Nitrogen Vacancy centre (NV).

NV centres are solid-state atom-like structures with intrinsic magnetic properties obeying quantum mechanics, which are well suited to the development of high-sensitivity, atomic-scale magnetometers. ‘The process we are developing means it is possible to control the orientation of NV centres in the crystal, it is a rather new technique,’ explains Dr. Thierry Debuisschert of Thales SA (a major French engineering and electronics group), the DIADEMS project coordinator.

DIADEMS uses artificial pure diamonds grown in a laboratory under well-controlled conditions. Scientists create the NV centre in the diamond under highly stringent conditions, but then the NV centres are ready for use at room temperature. This means that, once the technology is ready, it will be easier to roll-out than technologies that require specific conditions such as super cold temperatures to operate.

Compact sensors for biology, computing and mining

The project aims to develop wide field magnetic imagers which can take very precise measurements of magnetic fields. It also targets to develop a scanning probe magnetometer and sensor heads with very precise resolution.

‘They are atomic-scale sensors that allow localised measurements in the range of 10 nanometres. They also have good sensitivity. We expect to be able to build compact, sensitive, easy to use sensors which can be used in fields such as biology, magnetic storage and mining,’ Dr. Debuisschert says.

Using these techniques, researchers will eventually be able to monitor precisely what is happening at molecular and atomic scale, allowing for the possible opening up of a wide range of applications. In the future, with this technology, scientists would be able to see how molecules react in chemical reactions by observing changes in the spin of their electrons. Techniques developed by the project could also lead to smaller, faster and denser storage discs used in computing (using quantum techniques, scientists are able to reduce the size of the magnetic domains where the information is stored). The technology could be used to analyse micro-electronic circuits that are used in smart phones. Finally, the technology could also allow scientists to study the magnetic fields generated by neuron activity in the brain. This could eventually allow scientists to deepen their understanding of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

‘This technology is cutting edge since it makes measurements that are not possible with other techniques. It can monitor the magnetic resonance signal of a single molecule and measure the local temperature of an object at micrometric scale', Debuisschert adds.

Nonetheless, developing such sophisticated techniques is still at its early, laboratory-based phases. While outside of the current scope of the project, Dr. Debuisschert notes that ‘one important next step is to develop applications out of the laboratory.’

For further information visit the DIADEMS project website.

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DIADEMS, diamonds, magnetic measurements, sensors, brain mapping, computing, ICT, quantum
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