Scientists trying to look at some of nature's smallest objects have had to make a tough choice: They can use an atomic force microscope (AFM) to see molecules and even atoms--but not their chemical composition. Or they can use nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) imaging to see inside much larger objects and materials to determine their makeup.
This either-or game may soon be over: Research manager Daniel Rugar at IBM's Almaden Research Center has developed a hybrid "magnetic resonance force microscope" that can both image and analyze the chemical makeup of molecules as small as 2.6 microns wide--1/50 the width of a human hair. That's 100 times better than NMR. The device uses NMR to make the nuclei of atoms in a sample vibrate. The vibration reveals the structure and makeup of the molecules. Rugar hopes to improve the microscope's resolution so that single atoms could be analyzed. The MRF has commercial potential as a tool to help develop more precise drugs and to control more precisely materials used to make computer chips.