Minuscule chips for NMR spectroscopy promise portability, parallelization

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A team of engineers at theHarvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), Schlumberger-Doll Research Center in Cambridge, Mass., and the University of Texas, Austin, have created a truly portable device for nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy.

NMR spectroscopy is a technique that perturbs protons within a molecule to glean important clues about its structure. It can identify unknown substances, detect very slight variations in chemical composition, and measure how molecules interact, making it an essential tool in organic chemistry, structural biology, and drug discovery, as well as for quality control in many industries.

Led by Donhee Ham, Gordon McKay Professor of Electrical Engineering and Applied Physics at Harvard SEAS, and his student Dongwan Ha, Ph.D. ’14, the team has dramatically shrunk the electronic spectrometer components, fitting them on a silicon chip smaller than a sesame seed. Combined with a compact permanent magnet, this minuscule spectrometer represents the smallest device that can presently perform multidimensional NMR spectroscopy—a process Ham calls “one of the most powerful analytical tools to determine molecular structures at atomic resolution.”

Significantly reducing both the size and cost of the device—while also preserving the broad functionality of much larger spectroscopy setups—now enables the development of portable NMR spectrometers that could travel to remote sites for online, on-demand applications or simply to laboratories where massive, state-of-the-art systems would be prohibitively expensive.

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