A new way of measuring atomic-scale magnetic fields with great precision, not only up and down but sideways as well, has been developed by National Science Foundation-funded researchers. The new tool could be useful in applications as diverse as mapping the electrical impulses inside a firing neuron, characterizing new magnetic materials, and probing exotic quantum physical phenomena. The technique builds on a platform already developed to probe magnetic fields with high precision, using tiny defects in diamond called nitrogen-vacancy (NV) centers. This new method provides as much precision in this sideways dimension as in the first dimension while still using a single sensor, thus retaining its nanoscale spatial resolution. In order to read out the results, the researchers use an optical confocal microscope that makes use of a special property of the NV centers: When exposed to green light, they emit a red glow, or fluorescence, whose intensity depends on their exact spin state. These NV centers can function as qubits, the quantum-computing equivalent of the bits used in ordinary computing.
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