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BRIEF: Introducing a New Kind of Microscope

BRIEF: Introducing a New Kind of Microscope

Scientists apply quantum techniques to measure subtle details of a material's magnetic field.

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Schematic of magnetic microscope

An illustration showing the operating principle of the microscope. The shape of the thin gaseous strip (in red) changes according to the magnetic fields present in the sample below. Light is then shone onto the gas as a light sensor monitors the changes.

Image credits:

Courtesy of Benjamin Lev

Friday, March 17, 2017 - 17:00

Yuen Yiu, Staff Writer

(Inside Science) -- Scientists have developed a new kind of microscope that can detect tiny changes in a material's delicate magnetic field. The instrument could help researchers make progress on many frontier problems in physics, such as understanding how superconductivity and magnetism interact, and designing better data storage devices.

Named SQCRAMscope, short for Scanning Quantum Cryogenic Atom Microscope, the device uses a tiny cloud of extremely cold, magnetically trapped gaseous atoms known as a Bose-Einstein condensate to probe magnetic fields on the surface of a sample. The magnetic forces push and pull on the trapped gas, changing its shape. By bouncing light off the cloud, scientists can then "see" the magnetic field right beneath it. They can then move the sample back and forth to produce a complete 2-D image of the material's surface magnetic structure.

"There's a lot of enthusiasm," said Benjamin Lev, the leading scientist on the project from Stanford University in California. "A lot of people from the condensed matter community are excited about sending us samples to measure, and the atomic physics community is also excited to see some of their techniques being applied outside their community."

While other types of magnetic microscopes can provide better spatial resolution, Lev claims that his team's method is much more sensitive to the size of slowly fluctuating magnetic fields -- perhaps hundreds of times better. The microscope also has the capacity to study materials over a wide temperature range, from a few degrees above absolute zero up to room temperature.

Lev presented the research on Wednesday at a meeting of the American Physical Society in New Orleans. The team constructed and tested a working microscope based on this concept, and the results have been accepted for publication in the journal Physical Review Applied.

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Yuen Yiu covers the Physics beat for Inside Science. He's a Ph.D. physicist and fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin. Follow Yuen on Twitter: @fromyiutoyou.