Australian researchers have developed a microscope that can image small biological structures that were not previously visible in what has been described as an important step in quantum technology.
It is believed to be the first time that quantum technology is being 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 small systems such as atoms and subatomic particles behave.
The quantum microscope works with 35% more clarity – in the scale of bonds between atoms in a cell – than existing advanced imaging techniques.
Although still an early proof of concept, it hopes to eventually have comprehensive applications, including improving MRI scans and studying nerve degeneration and the effects of antibiotics.
Lead researcher Prof Warwick Bowen of the University of Queensland said the quantum microscope surpassed conventional technologies.
“We have shown that it is possible to go beyond the limits of classical physics and see things you could not see in an ordinary microscope,” he said.
A common problem with imaging small structures is the ratio of the 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 techniques that won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2014.
This can cause problems in the biological samples being studied, said Professor Brant Gibson at RMIT, who was not involved in the study.
“They get killed, they change their behavior,” Bowen said. “All sorts of things are happening that make it really difficult to interpret what’s going on in biological systems.”
To get a clearer image, the new microscope uses quantum technology to reduce random light fluctuations in an image. It works with quantum entanglement, a phenomenon in which light photons are linked to each other – an effect that Einstein described as “eerie interaction at a distance”.
The microscope studies molecular vibrations in a cell. “It basically tells you what chemical bonds there are in certain areas of the cell,” Bowen said. “It has been shown to be able to distinguish cancer from healthy cells.”
“If this proposed technique can extract more information by not using such intense light levels, then I think that’s a pretty profound result,” Gibson said.
Prof Dayong Jin at the University of Technology Sydney, who was not involved in the research, said it would take time for the new imaging technology to be widely adopted.
Jin cites 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 laboratories around the world.
“Hopefully within 10 years, quantum microscopy can be developed and improved widely,” Jin said.
The researchers hope to further improve the performance of the new microscope to provide an image about 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, communication and computing”. The development of sophisticated sensors like this microscope also forms an important milestone in the UK’s roadmap for quantum technologies.
In 2019, Google declared that they had achieved “quantum domination” – that they had built a quantum computer that could surpass the world’s best traditional supercomputer.
Quantum microscopy research was funded in part by the U.S. Air Force and published in the prestigious journal Nature.