Thursday, June 10, 2010

Key Star Trek tri-corder boffinry breakthrough

A breakthrough in small, high-powered magnets could lead to handheld magnetic resonance scanners with similar capabilities to those of today's room-sized medical and scientific instruments.

According to a report in MIT Technology Review, Doctor Federico Casanova and colleagues at the Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule (RWTH) in Aachen have built a 500-gramme magnet about the size of a D-cell battery which can generate a 0.7 Tesla field. This is still substantially less than the multi-Tesla fields required for MRI scans, but Casanova thinks that his design could be enhanced up to 2 Tesla in future.

This could mean that a lot of procedures which nowadays involve sending samples off to labs or patients to hospitals could instead be done in the field using devices no bigger than a Star Trek Tricorder.

Doctors or paramedics could use the new portable magno-scanners to check blood or other samples on the spot. Small, affordable instruments could check drugs and vaccines for quality as they were made. Archaeologists and other field researchers would be able to analyse finds immediately, rather than waiting until their return - perhaps as a result being able to direct their efforts much more efficiently.

Small nuclear magnetic resonance components might also be a boon to the brain-hurting field of quantum computing, in which boffins seek to make a computer running on qubits which might have any value rather than regular dull bits which are 1 or 0. One method under consideration here is the use of the spin state of a molecule as a qubit, which requires the use of very strong magnets.

IBM boffins have built a small 7-qubit magno-quantum computer in the past, and if such research leads on to bigger things Casanova-style teeny ultramagnets would potentially reduce the size and cost of tomorrow's quantum computers substantially.

There would also, perhaps, be applications in other areas such as the "cloaking" of warships' magnetic signature so as to make them safer from mines, and possibly also in plasma rockets able to carry astronauts to Mars in just months. Not to mention the possibility of building a brainscanning hat (able to warn of an imminent mistake made by the wearer) which would actually be portable, unlike the current model which weighs several tons.

Then, it should also be noted that efforts are underway in the US to deploy magnetic-resonance scanners in airports so as to allow people once again to take copious amounts of liquid aboard aeroplanes.