NSF Recognizes Andrei Shkel with EAGER Award

An array of spatially distributed  glassblown micro-cells be used to derive the magnetic field gradient.Professor Andrei Shkel has received a $300,000 National Science Foundation EAGER (Early-concept Grants for Exploratory Research) Award. The NSF’s EAGER funding supports exploratory work in its early stages on untested, but potentially transformative, research ideas or approaches.

Shkel is investigating a new approach for a high performance magnetometer set in a 10-square centimeter microsystem. The proposed technology would be able to detect weak magnetic fields such as those produced by the brain, heart and other organs. Shkel envisions a hand-held device for personal health-care, on-demand diagnostic and self-monitoring of diseases.

“There’s been an increasing interest in atomic microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) over the last five years,” says Shkel, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, electrical engineering and computer science, and biomedical engineering. “Both chip-scale atomic clocks and gyroscopes have been developed, demonstrating the feasibility of atomic MEMS and giving reason to explore other types of microdevices where atomic detection mechanisms may be beneficial.”

Contrary to state-of-the-art superconducting quantum interference devices (SQUIDs), Shkel’s proposed atomic magnetometer will not require cryogenic cooling and will not have any moving mechanical parts. Today's systems are large, bulky, expensive and only available in highly specialized medical facilities, dedicated military constellations, or expensive mobile platforms. The accessibility of such technology for personal use in the form of hand-held devices could be revolutionary.

“A high-performance magnetometer can potentially be achieved by measuring the apparent change of the precession frequency of nuclear spins in response to a weak magnetic field,” he explains.  It is estimated that the dense array of nuclear-spin-based magnetometers can exceed the performance of today's solid-state magnetometers by several orders of magnitude.

This research will advance scientific knowledge in the areas of innovative sensing concepts, signal processing, and system-level implementation.  Highly multidisciplinary, the project will also provide unique educational experience for undergraduate and graduate students through team collaborations.