In 1961, Nicolaas Bloembergen proposed the idea of nuclear electric resonance, a possible method for controlling atomic nuclei using electric fields alone. However, Nobel Prize-winning physicists have a lot of incorrect theories, so when the search to confirm his work was unsuccessful, the idea was forgotten. That is until a lab accident confirmed it.
Professor Andrea Morello of the University of New South Wales led a team studying the effect of changing magnetic fields on the nucleus of an antimony atom. Morello explained to IFLScience that the team needed an antenna containing some very thin, and therefore fragile, wires in order to maximize the field strength. Putting too much energy into the antenna can cause some of the wires to blow.
“In the past when we have been working on phosphorus, if this happened, everything would stop working and we would throw the antenna out,” Morello told IFLScience. Instead, the team continued seeing effects, but these were much slower than expected, and only occurred at a subset of anticipated frequencies.
After considerable puzzlement, one of Morello's students suggested they might be witnessing an electrical effect, normally masked by the larger magnetic forces. “I have worked on spin resonance for 20 years of my life, but honestly, I had never heard of this idea of nuclear electric resonance,” Morello said in a statement. Upon investigation, the team found out about Bloembergen's work and its subsequent abandonment.
Morello told IFLScience only atoms with a nuclear spin of more than 0.5 (including arsenic and bismuth along with antimony) would resonate to changing electric fields in this way.
Although scientists have demonstrated the capacity to control a single atomic nucleus for some time, this has been done using magnetic fields, which are harder to confine than their electric counterparts. Replacing magnetic fields with electric ones will allow for more precision, as well as much lower energy consumption.
That will benefit the basic sciences of the type Morello was practicing, but it also marks a step towards the long-sought-after goal of quantum computing. “This discovery means that we now have a pathway to build quantum computers using single-atom spins without the need for any oscillating magnetic field for their operation,” Morello said.
The happy accident won Morello's team a publication in Nature. Despite its many potential uses, Morello doesn't think the discovery will replace nuclear magnetic resonance, currently widely used in medical imaging and mining research among other places. “If you tried to use it in an MRI machine, you'd electrocute the patient,” he said to IFLScience.
On the other hand, besides quantum computing, the technique could be used to measure the strain in classical transistors, helping to improve their production and design. Many more applications are likely to appear with time too.