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A Quantum Leap

A needle-tip MRI scanner can capture the image of a single atom and push the frontier of quantum computing
twitter-logo BusinessToday.In   New Delhi     Print Edition: August 11, 2019
A Quantum Leap

For years now, we have come across bulky MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machines, those enormous and somewhat intimidating chunks of infrastructure which would often make us panicky. Still astonishing is their ability to capture detailed images of internal organs and soft tissues - something that X-rays and CT scans cannot do - to help with diagnosis. There is just one glitch. The machines have not shed their bulk even in this age of nanotechnology; neither do they fit in an ambulance. But efforts are on to miniaturise them as portability is crucial to widen their reach and enhance their functionality.

Over the past few years, some reduction in the size of MRI machines has been achieved to make it a point-of-care diagnostic tool. One such effort resulted in WristView wherein a patient's wrist can be scanned by inserting her arm in a cylindrical aperture. But it is still on the large side and cannot be worn on the wrist. A year ago, in what was considered a major breakthrough, the Tata Trusts Foundation developed a scaled-down system, but it still needed a truck to be moved around.

Now, a team of researchers at Seoul's Center for Quantum Nanoscience (under the Institute for Basic Sciences at Ewha Womans University) has joined hands with scientists at the IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California, and developed the world's smallest MRI machine, according to a paper published in the journal Nature Physics. What's more, the miniaturised MRI machine can capture the image of something as minuscule as a single atom. Let us take a look at how it is done.

A traditional MRI machine creates a strong magnetic field around the human body. This interferes with the fundamental magnets in our body - namely, the spinning electrons and protons lying in the nucleus of every atom of each body cell. The energy from the MRI-generated spinning/oscillating magnetic field creates a brief pulse of radio-frequency (RF) energy, which makes the protons spin perpendicular to the pulse. When the protons release that energy and return to normal, sensors measure the same and turn them into images. Understandably, billions and billions of spins are needed to gather adequate data for diagnostics.

To scale down their MRI device, the researchers put all these MRI capabilities into a scanning tunnelling microscope with a sharp metal tip. The two atoms (iron and titanium) studied for this project were highly magnetic and distinctly visible through the microscope. The team then used the microscope's tip as an MRI scanner and 3D-mapped the image at high resolution.

This extreme miniaturisation of the MRI process is a breakthrough as it enables the study of a single atom with great precision, records the signature structure of the material and also manages to differentiate between two atoms made of different stuff but lying next to each other. The researchers think this new technique could lead to the development of new drugs, new materials and better quantum computing systems. "We can now see something that we couldn't see before," IBM scientist 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."


Power Up Via Radio Waves

imagine how good it will feel if your smartphone or laptop can be charged over the air. Redmond-based Ossia has just received an FCC certification for this kind of wireless tech, as per The Next Web.

Its wireless tech, called Cota, uses radio frequencies to deliver power across a short distance. But right now, it is only available for industrial use. "Wireless charging pads are not the ultimate innovation," says the company's website. "When power is available everywhere, the question is no longer how quickly you can charge your device, but rather, what is possible when your device does not need to be charged at all?"

Cota will use a transmitter placed indoors and receivers placed in the gadgets that need power - it could include IoT sensors as well. Ossia says its Cota technology will soon power devices at any distance, even when they are in motion and not necessarily within the line of sight. Also, it will be able to charge multiple devices, just like Bluetooth or Wi-Fi does. The hardware will be in sync with a cloud-based service, which is how the delivery of power to devices will be controlled.

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