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Carbon nanotubes could 'revolutionise' medical imaging

10 June 2013

New research shows that carbon nanotubes hold potential for revolutionising medical research with magnetic resonance imaging of individual molecules.

Researchers Adrian Bachtold, Joel Moser and Johannes Güttinger (photo: ICFO)
Researchers Adrian Bachtold, Joel Moser and Johannes Güttinger (photo: ICFO)

Scientists from ICFO-The Institute of Photonic Science in Catalonia, Spain, in collaboration with researchers from the Catalan Institute of Nanotechnology (ICN2) and the University of Michigan, have been able to measure weak forces with fifty time the sensitivity previously achieved.

This significant improvement represents a turning point in measuring very weak forces, say the scientists, and opens the door for magnetic resonance imaging at the molecular scale. Dr Adrian Bachtold, who began this research at ICN2 before transferring his research group to ICFO, says they were able to prepare the carbon nanotubes to act as probes that vibrate with an intensity proportional to an electrostatic force.

With the use of ultra-low-noise electronics, Bachtold's group was able to measure the amplitude of the vibration of these nanotubes and thus surmise the intensity of the electrostatic force.

"Carbon nanotubes are similar to guitar strings which vibrate in response to the force applied. However, in the case of our experiment, the forces that cause the vibration are extremely small, similar to the gravitational force created between two people 4,500km apart", explains Bachtold.

In the last ten years scientists have made only modest improvements in the sensitivity of the measurement of very weak forces.

Conventional magnetic resonance imaging registers the spin of atomic nuclei throughout the body, which have been previously excited by an external electromagnetic field. Based on the global response of all atoms, it is possible to monitor and diagnose the evolution of certain diseases.

However, this conventional diagnostic technique has a resolution of a few millimetres. Smaller objects have an insufficient total number of atoms to allow for the observation of the response signals.

"The results presented are very promising for measuring the force created by each individual atom and consequently its spin. In the future this technique could revolutionise medical imaging" concludes Bachtold.

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