IBM on Monday plans to announce a breakthrough in nanoscale visualization technology that could lead to more powerful drugs and integrated circuits.
Researchers at IBM's Almaden Research Center have found a way to use magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, techniques to see nanoscale objects.
Dan Rugar, manager of nanoscale studies at the research center, said the discovery represents "a milestone that has shown that the principles of MRI can be married with scanning microscopy."
While the eventual goal -- building a microscope than can see individual atoms in three dimensions -- remains "a number of years away," Rugar said that extending MRI technology into the nanoscale realm is a significant achievement.
MRI, Rugar said, "is a great technology but it has always had one important limitation: It's not very sensitive." What IBM researchers have managed to do is use Magnetic Resonance Force Microscopy to image objects as small as 90 nanometers in two dimensions. A nanometer is a unit of measurement equal to one billionth of a meter.
With the future development of atomic scale 3-D imaging techniques, Rugar said that scientists will be able to better determine protein structure and function, insight that will improve drug and materials development.
IBM researchers have a long history of imaging breakthroughs. Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer of IBM's Zurich Research Laboratory won the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physics for inventing the scanning tunneling microscope.
The report on this work, "Nuclear magnetic resonance imaging with 90-nm resolution," is scheduled to appear in the April 22 issue of Nature Nanotechnology.