A low-power, magnetic sensor about the size of a grain of rice that can detect magnetic field changes as small as 50 picoteslas--a million times weaker than the Earths magnetic field--has been demonstrated by researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Described in the Dec. 27 issue of Applied Physics Letters,* the device can be powered with batteries and is about 100 times smaller than current atom-based sensors with similar sensitivities, which typically weigh several kilograms (about 6 pounds).
Photo of the NIST chip-scale magnetometer. The sensor is about as tall as a grain of rice. The widest block near the top of the device is an enclosed, transparent cell that holds a vapor of rubidium atoms. Photo by Peter Schwindt/NIST
The new magnetic sensor is based on the principles of a NIST chip-scale atomic clock, announced in August 2004. Expected applications for a commercialized version of the new sensor could include hand-held devices for sensing unexploded ordnance, precision navigation, geophysical mapping to locate minerals or oil, and medical instruments.
Like the NIST chip-scale clock, the new magnetic sensor can be fabricated and assembled on semiconductor wafers using existing techniques for making microelectronics and microelectromechanical systems (MEMS). This offers the potential for low-cost mass production of sensors about the size of a computer chip. When packaged with associated electronics, the researchers believe the mini magnetometer will measure about 1 cubic centimeter or about the size of a sugar cube.
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