Technique allows tiny sensors to monitor small changes in magnetic fields, such as when neurons transmit electrical signals.

Diamonds may be a girl’s best friend, but they could also one day help us understand how the brain processes information, thanks to a new sensing technique developed at MIT.

A team in MIT’s Quantum Engineering Group has developed a new method to control nanoscale diamond sensors, which are capable of measuring even very weak magnetic fields. The researchers present their work this week in the journal Nature Communications.

The new control technique allows the tiny sensors to monitor how these magnetic fields change over time, such as when neurons in the brain transmit electrical signals to each other. It could also enable researchers to more precisely measure the magnetic fields produced by novel materials such as the metamaterials used to make superlenses and “invisibility cloaks.”

In 2008 a team of researchers from MIT, Harvard University, and other institutions first revealed that nanoscale defects inside diamonds could be used as magnetic sensors.

The naturally occurring defects, known as nitrogen-vacancy (N-V) centers, are sensitive to external magnetic fields, much like compasses, says Paola Cappellaro, the Esther and Harold Edgerton Associate Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE) at MIT.

Defects inside diamonds are also known as color centers, Cappellaro says, as they give the gemstones a particular hue: “So if you ever see a nice diamond that is blue or pink, the color is due to the fact that there are defects in the diamond.”

The N-V center defect consists of a nitrogen atom in place of a carbon atom and next to a vacancy — or hollow — within the diamond’s lattice structure. Many such defects within a diamond would give the gemstone a pink color, and when illuminated with light they emit a red light, Cappellaro says.

To develop the new method of controlling these sensors, Cappellaro’s team first probed the diamond with green laser light until they detected a red light being emitted, which told them exactly where the defect was located.

They then applied a microwave field to the nanoscale sensor, to manipulate the electron spin of the N-V center. This alters the intensity of light emitted by the defect, to a degree that depends not only on the microwave field but also on any external magnetic fields present.

To measure external magnetic fields and how they change over time, the researchers targeted the nanoscale sensor with a microwave pulse, which switched the direction of the N-V center’s electron spin, says team member and NSE graduate student Alexandre Cooper. By applying different series of these pulses, acting as filters — each of which switched the direction of the electron spin a different number of times — the team was able to efficiently collect information about the external magnetic field.

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