EPFL installs world-unique NMR system

© Alain Herzog/EPFL

© Alain Herzog/EPFL

EPFL’s Institute of Chemical Sciences and Engineering (ISIC) has installed an NMR system with the highest sensitivity and resolution in the world.

Between 17-19 November, EPFL’s Institute of Chemical Sciences and Engineering (ISIC) received and installed a new nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) machine. NMR is the main method used in molecular sciences to visualize atomic-level structures of matter. It is the key to continuing development of better chemical properties.

The technique that exploits the magnetic properties of certain atoms (e.g. carbon, hydrogen, fluorine etc) by exposing them to a powerful magnetic field. The nuclei of the atoms behave like tiny bar magnets, aligning themselves with the magnetic field, absorbing energy. The atoms are then made to resonate and release that energy it in the form of weak radio waves. Each atom resonates at a unique frequency, which can be read as its “fingerprint” spectrum.

In this way, NMR can be used to analyze molecular structures, or to match unknown compounds against “fingerprint” libraries of known atoms to be identified. Ultimately, NMR allows scientists to determine the detailed structures of a previously unknown molecules or materials.

ISIC’s new system is a specialized version of NMR used to analyze solids, which are currently particularly difficult to visualize with NMR, and EPFL scientists will develop methods to determine the atomic level structures of various materials of significant industrial, medical, biological, and commercial interest. 

But what makes it so unique? “This is the highest field solid-state NMR spectrometer in the world to be coupled to a high-power gyrotron microwave source,” says ISIC’s director Lyndon Emsley, referring to a system that can produce electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths in the micrometer range. 

This means that the system can produce in situ NMR spectra with unprecedented signal intensity, as it offers a 10,000-fold boost in sensitivity per unit of time for NMR in solids. This will allow researchers to directly observe tiny amounts of active molecular species, for example, on surfaces or at the interfaces in different materials.

The system will be used by scientists in Materials, Chemistry, Chemical Engineering and Structural Biology for atomic-level characterization of complex solid materials, from concrete to catalytic surfaces to amyloid plaques.