Examining A Painting with the NMR-MOUSE, a portable materials analyzer (inside a positioning frame), allows Eleonora Del Federico of Pratt Institute to discriminate among the layers of varnishes, paints, gesso and the canvas backing to determine the work's state of conservation. Image: GRANT DELIN (photograph); NEW DOMESTIC DAYDREAMING, BY KENNETH BROWNE, 2007 (painting)
- Scientists have for decades used nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) systems to investigate the chemical composition of materials without damaging them. And physicians have employed essentially the same technique, using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines to view inside the human body.
- NMR and MRI machines are large. But researchers have now developed portable versions. A good example is the NMR-MOUSE, which has found applications in the control of manufacturing processes, the nondestructive testing of materials, archaeology and art conservation.
- Ongoing research could lead to improved, specialized versions, including perhaps a football-helmetlike brain scanner that could operate in a speeding ambulance.
You or someone you know has probably had an internal malady examined with a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine. Lying in the claustrophobic confines of the room-size magnetic doughnuts that make MRI possible can be stressful, but the diagnostic value of the resulting high-contrast pictures of the various soft tissues inside the body makes up for any angst. A more generalized version of the technique, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), also offers enormous benefits, enabling scientists to characterize the chemical compositions of materials as well as the structures of proteins and other important biomolecules without having to penetrate the objects under study physically.
But doctors and scientists have long yearned for portable NMR devices that could be used outside the laboratory. They have envisioned, for example, paramedics using a helmetlike MRI scanner to pinpoint blood clots in the brain of a stroke victim while still inside a speeding ambulance. And they have imagined a handheld NMR spectroscope that could discern the chemical makeup of pigments, thus permitting art experts to distinguish old-master paintings hanging in museums and galleries from modern fakes.
This article was originally published with the title The Incredible Shrinking Scanner.