Australian researchers have developed a microscope that can image tiny biological structures that were previously not visible in what has been described as a significant step in quantum technology.
It is believed to be the first time that quantum technology has improved on existing light microscopes, which in the future may lead to improvements in medical imaging and navigation systems.
Quantum technologies are based on the principles of quantum physics, which are used to describe how tiny systems such as atoms and subatomic particles behave.
The quantum microscope works 35% more clearly, at the scale of bonds between atoms in a cell, than existing state-of-the-art imaging techniques.
Although it is still an early proof of concept, it is expected to eventually have wide-ranging applications, including the enhancement of MRI imaging and the study of nerve degeneration and the effects of antibiotics.
Lead researcher Professor Warwick Bowen of the University of Queensland said the quantum microscope outperformed conventional technologies.
“We have shown that it is possible to go beyond the limits of classical physics, to see things that cannot be seen in a normal microscope,” he said.
A common problem in imaging tiny structures is the ratio of the emitted signal that researchers are trying to look at compared to random light fluctuations in the background of an image.
Scientists had previously overcome this problem by increasing the intensity of a microscope’s light source, using lasers billions of times brighter than the sun, including in techniques that won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2014.
This can cause problems in the biological samples being studied, said Professor Brant Gibson of RMIT, who was not involved in the study.
“They kill them, they change their behavior,” Bowen said. “All kinds of things happen that make it really difficult to interpret what is happening in biological systems.”
To obtain a clearer image, the new microscope uses quantum technology to reduce random light fluctuations within an image. It works with quantum entanglement, a phenomenon in which photons of light are linked together, an effect that Einstein described as a “creepy interaction at a distance.”
The microscope studies the molecular vibrations within a cell. “It basically tells you what chemical bonds are in particular regions of the cell,” Bowen said. “It has been shown to be able to distinguish cancer cells from healthy ones.”
“If this technique that is being proposed can extract more information using not so intense levels of light, then I think it’s a pretty profound result,” Gibson said.
Professor Dayong Jin of the Sydney University of Technology, who was not involved in the research, said it will take time for the new imaging technology to be widely adopted.
Jin cites the 2014 Nobel Prize-winning research as an example: It was first developed in the early 1990s, but it took more than a decade to be adopted in labs around the world.
“It is hoped that within 10 years quantum microscopy can be widely developed and improved,” said Jin.
The researchers hope to further improve the performance of the new microscope, to give an image around 10 times clearer than existing technology.
Many governments around the world have invested heavily in quantum technology. The Australian Army Research Center has identified that it has the potential for “unprecedented capabilities in sensing, imaging, communications and computing.” The development of sophisticated sensors like this microscope also forms a key milestone in the UK quantum technologies roadmap.
In 2019, Google declared that it had achieved “quantum supremacy,” that it had built a quantum computer capable of surpassing the world’s best traditional supercomputer.
The quantum microscopy research was partially funded by the US Air Force and published in the prestigious journal Nature.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism