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For decades, scientists have used techniques such as X-ray crystallography and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) imaging to gain invaluable insight into the atomic structure of molecules. Such efforts have long been hampered by the fact that they demand large quantities of a specific molecule, often in ordered and crystalized form, to be effective—making it all but impossible to peer into the structure of most molecules.

Harvard researchers say those problems may soon be a thing of the past.

A team of scientists, led by Professor of Physics and of Applied Physics Amir Yacoby, has developed a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) system that can produce nanoscale images, and may one day allow researchers to peer into the atomic structure of individual molecules. Their work is described in a March 23 paper in Nature Nanotechnology.

"What we've demonstrated in this new paper is the ability to get very high spatial resolution, and a fully operational MRI technology," Yacoby said. "This work is directed toward obtaining detailed information on molecular structure. If we can image a single molecule and identify that there is a hydrogen atom here and a carbon there … we can obtain information about the structure of many molecules that cannot be imaged by any other technique today."

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