February 29, 2024

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Quantum Sensing Advances Subsurface Nanometrology

Image credits: ornl.gov

A recent nanoscience investigation, led by a scientist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory within the Department of Energy provided a comprehensive overview of how researchers explore the tiniest material scales. Their research paper examines the forefront of subsurface nanometrology, a discipline focused on internal measurements at the nanoscale. It proposes that quantum sensing may lay the groundwork for this field’s next phase of breakthroughs.

Potential applications encompassed everything from mapping cellular structures to enhance targeted drug delivery to characterising quantum materials and nanostructures, contributing to the advancement of quantum computing.

Ali Passian, a senior research scientist at ORNL and the study’s senior author, explained, “Our objective was to assess the current state of the art and contemplate past achievements as well as future directions.”

Delving the materials to uncover their hidden secrets has always been compelling. Yet, genuinely unveiling what lies beneath remains a  challenge, irrespective of the scale at which it is attempted.

The aspiration is to ignite the curiosity of a new generation of scientists, motivating them to embrace this formidable challenge by harnessing the power of quantum phenomena or any other promising avenues that may emerge. In doing so, they envision pushing the boundaries of sensing and imaging science, facilitating profound discoveries and a deeper comprehension of the world.

At the heart of this quest are the particles residing at the nanoscale, which serve as the fundamental building blocks of quantum science. Their diminutive size grants scientists a unique capability: the ability to meticulously manipulate and fine-tune the basic properties of materials with unparalleled precision.

For instance, one nanometer corresponds to a minuscule one-billionth of a meter, a mere one-millionth of a millimetre, or a thousandth of a micrometre. To grasp the scale further, consider that the thickness of an average sheet of paper measures approximately 100,000 nanometers.

This remarkable capacity to delve into the realm of nanoscale phenomena opens up a world of possibilities for scientific exploration, where even the tiniest adjustments can lead to groundbreaking advancements in our understanding of materials and their properties.

Passian and his co-author, Amir Payam, proposed that the nanoscale level might serve not only as the domain where intricate molecular structures, such as cell membranes, come into existence but also as the realm where the dimensions of emerging materials, such as metasurfaces and quantum materials, align. He suggested that this aspect of nanoscale exploration still needs to be explored.

While significant strides have been made in advancing the nanometrology of surfaces because of innovative tools like the scanning probe microscope, which employs a finely pointed probe to scrutinise samples at the atomic level, the authors acknowledge that subsurface studies have achieved fewer comparable breakthroughs.

Passian observed, “All sensory capabilities are inherently attuned to surface-level phenomena. Although we have made significant progress in extending our reach to the nanoscale through methods involving light, sound, electrons, and minuscule probes, the challenge of accurately measuring subsurface materials persists.

They require novel techniques to peer into these materials without disturbing their integrity. Quantum science holds promise in this regard, particularly in quantum sensing. For example, they can harness the quantum states of the probe, the light, and the sample to unlock new possibilities in subsurface exploration.”

The authors proposed that emerging quantum sensing techniques, currently in their nascent stages of development, have the potential to revolutionise subsurface exploration. For example, quantum probes could leverage skyrmions, subatomic quasi-particles formed by magnetic field disruptions and already being considered for various other quantum applications. These quantum probes could delve deeper into materials than any existing methods permit.

Passian noted, “Researchers are diligently striving to expand the boundaries of detection and create novel measurement approaches. I anticipate that the next few years will be exhilarating as we witness the realisation and user-friendly deployment of these techniques, paving the way for the achievement of quantum nanometrology in both surface and subsurface domains.”


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