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Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have developed a new type of magnetometer–or magnetic-field detector–that rivals the sensitivity of its predecessors but is small and cheap, and uses very little power.

Magnetometers have a wide range of potential applications: where there is an electrical current, there is a magnetic field. Measurements of magnetic fields can reveal information about the electrical activity of the human heart and brain, the chemical identity of a spinning atom, or simply the presence or absence of metal. Because of their small size and sensitivity, the new sensors promise to improve detection of bombs and fetal heartbeats, and could be incorporated into future magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners.

The new sensor, developed by NIST physicist John Kitching, consists of a laser, a cell containing vaporized metal atoms, and a light detector. When the metal atoms are illuminated by the laser, they align such that they don’t absorb any of the light. The presence of even a very weak magnetic field, however, disrupts their alignment, and they absorb some of the light. This change is recorded by the detector.

Other researchers have made similar magnetometers, but Kitching and his team used microfabrication techniques to miniaturize the vapor cell, which in their device consists of a cubic millimeter of silicon. The laser is an infrared diode similar to those in CD drives, so all three components can be mounted on silicon chips, making them easier to work with.

For applications such as the detection of improvised explosive devices or unexploded ordnance in minefields, the small size and low power consumption of the NIST sensors could make a big difference. The sensors could be grouped in arrays, making it possible to gain more data in a given amount of time. Commercially available laser-based magnetic detectors are the size of soda cans, require 20 watts of power, and cost $20,000 each, so grouping them in arrays is impracticable.

Remediation workers use these large sensors to detect unexploded land mines and other weapons in former battlefields, but it’s a “tedious procedure,” says Mark Prouty, president of Geometrics, a San Jose, CA, company that makes magnetic sensors. The heavy sensors must be carried back and forth across a field, then carried back to an office, where magnetic data is synthesized with GPS data to make maps. Then the workers must go back to the field with the maps to dig up the weapons.

With an array of smaller sensors, it would be possible to “gather data in a snapshot and dig [weapons] up in the field,” says Prouty.

The detection of improvised explosive devices is also a big problem for the military, says Prouty. It’s difficult to detect these bombs with individual magnetic sensors because “everything shows up, including the vehicle the sensor is mounted on,” he explains. Single sensors take point measurements; they can detect a metal-containing object like a bomb but can’t give any information about its location or shape. An array of magnetic sensors could “give an answer on the spot,” says Prouty.

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Credit: Loel Barr

Tagged: Biomedicine, sensor, magnetics

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