Diamonds ‘may be the ultimate MRI probe’

Diamonds are a woman's best friend,they say. Now,a new study has claimed that the gems may soon turn out to be a patient's best friend as well.

Written by Agencies | Washington | Published:September 23, 2009 11:09 am

Diamonds are a woman’s best friend,they say. Now,a new study has claimed that the gems may soon turn out to be a patient’s best friend as well.

An international team,led by scientists from Harvard University,has carried out the study and found that diamond,formed of pure carbon,occasionally has minute imperfections within its crystalline lattice.

A common impurity is a “nitrogen vacancy”,in which two carbon atoms are replaced by a single atom of nitrogen,leaving the other carbon atom space vacant. Nitrogen vacancies are in part responsible for diamond’s famed luster,for they are actually fluorescent.

According to the scientists,the slight variations in this fluorescence can be used to determine the magnetic spin of a single electron in the nitrogen. Spin’s quantum property that has a value of either “up” or “down”,and therefore could represent one or zero in binary computation.

The team’s recent achievement was to transfer this quantum information repeatedly between the nitrogen electron and the nuclei of adjacent carbon atoms,forming a small circuit capable of logic operations.

Reading a quantum bit’s spin information a fundamental task for a quantum computer has been a daunting challenge,but the team demonstrated that by transferring the information back and forth between the electron and the nuclei,the information could be amplified,making it much easier to read.

Lead scientist Jacob Taylor said the findings are “evolutionary,not revolutionary” for quantum computing field and that the medical world may reap practical benefits from the discovery long before a working quantum computer is built.

He envisions diamond-tipped sensors performing magnetic resonance tests on individual cells within the body,or on single molecules drug companies want to investigate a sort of MRI scanner for the microscopic.

“That’s commonly thought not to be possible because in both of these cases the magnetic fields are so small. But this technique has very low toxicity and can be done at room temperature. It could potentially look inside a single cell and allow us to visualise what’s happening in different spots,” Taylor said.

The work,published in the ‘Physics and Chemistry’ journal,has long-term goal of developing quantum computers,but it has borne fruit that may have more immediate application in medical science.

The finding that a candidate “quantum bit” has great sensitivity to magnetic fields hints that MRI-like devices that can probe individual drug molecules and living cells may be possible,they said.

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