Diamonds are helping researchers to probe the secret life of molecules. Diamonds have long been prized for their beauty. But for scientists, the attraction goes beyond the glitter. A Thales-led project is using synthetic diamonds to build measuring devices so sensitive that they can monitor chemical composition at the scale of an individual molecule.
“They’re extremely sensitive and this allows us to get very close to a single molecule, atom or any kind of object and then monitor its individual properties.” The research is being carried out as part of the DIADEMS project, funded by the European Commission.
The aim of DIADEMS – DIAmond Devices Enabled Metrology and Sensing – is to develop high-sensitivity magnetometers capable of working at the atomic scale. These ultra-sensitive devices, which measure tiny magnetic fields, have the potential to have implications in many fields from medical research to the design of high-density data storage discs.
Putting diamonds to work
“Next to this nitrogen atom, there is a missing carbon atom – a vacancy, explains Debuisschert. The combination of those two elements builds what we call the nitrogen vacancy centre. It behaves like an atom with electrons having well-defined properties.”
One of the key characteristics of the NV centre – and the reason it is so valuable as a sensor – is that it can be used to detect magnetic fields at the nanometric scale.
Creating diamond crystals with the desired NV centres and then making them into sensors is a painstaking business. To ensure the highest standards are maintained, DIADEMS brings together all the skills needed to manage the process from end to end.
Closer to the action
NV sensors are also expected to accelerate the development of the next generation of high-density data storage discs by making it possible to characterise the magnetic fields produced by microscopic read/write heads – something that cannot be achieved easily with current technology. “We know that the ultimate sensors are based on the properties at the single atomic scale,” says Debuisschert. “We expect that the NV centre in diamonds will give rise to a generation of sensors that will not only be able to detect magnetic fields, but also pressure, thermal and electrical properties – these could be very useful for future sensors developed by Thales.” Diamond sensors, it seems have a dazzling future.