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TR10: Atomic Magnetometers

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Made in this inexpensive way, the low-power sensors could be set into portable, battery-power­ed imaging arrays. Such arrays could easily map out the strength and extent of magnetic fields; the more sensors in an array, the more information it can provide about an object’s location and shape. Soldiers, for example, could use such arrays to find unexploded bombs and improvised explosive devices more quickly and cheaply.

The tiny sensors could also revolutionize MRI and NMR. Both technologies rely on powerful, cumbersome, expensive magnets that require costly cooling systems. Because Kitching’s­ sensors can detect very weak magnetic fields, MRI and NMR machines incorporating them might be able to get good pictures using a magnet that’s much weaker–and therefore smaller and cheaper.

As a result, MRI could become more widely available. And for the first time, doctors could use it to examine patients with pace­makers or other metallic implants that can’t be exposed to powerful magnets. Portable systems might even be developed for use in ambulances or on battlefields. And NMR could move from the lab into the field, where it could help oil and mining companies assess promising underground deposits.

Kitching and his colleagues recently showed that the sensors can measure NMR signals produced by water. Much remains to be done, Kitching says, before the devices can resolve faint signals from multiple chemical structures–distinguishing, say, between several possible trace contaminants in a water sample. Likewise, portable MRI machines will take some work. But with Kitching’s miniaturized magnetometers, the challenge will shift from gathering magnetic information to interpreting it.

See All 10 Emerging Technologies 2008

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Katherine Bourzac


I'm a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. Before going freelance, I was MIT Technology Review's material science editor; and I graduated from MIT's Science...
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