NRC opens Canada’s largest spectrometry facility

The National Research Council on Thursday launched what was described as Canada’s most powerful magnet, a tool that could be used by scientists across the country to speed up microprocessors or create quantum computers.

In partnership with the provinces of Ontario and Quebec and the University of Ottawa, the NRC opened the W.G. Scheidner Building, which will house a 900 MHz nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer, along with four other spectrometers from the NRC’s pre-existing Magnetic Resonance Facility. While spectrometers have normally been used to measure and analyze the properties of liquids, such as molecules or DNA, the NRC’s $15-million 900 MHz spectrometer will be the only one in the world to focus on the study of solids such as plastic polymers and glass, officials said.

Victor V. Terskikh, Ph.D., manager of the high-field NMR facility, said there are only about 15 spectrometers of this kind in the world, several of them in Japan.

“No university alone could buy this machine for itself. No one would give scientists that much money,” he said. “That’s why we said, Let’s make a national facility that will be available to researchers all over the world.”

Besides plastics and glass, the NMR can be used to examine ceramics, composite materials, nanostructural materials, carbon nanotubes, hydrogen storage and fuel cells, Terskikh said.

“A lot of this could help determine how to increase the quality of materials (and) avoid defects,” he said.

A steering committee made up of representatives from Laval University, the University of Ottawa and University of Alberta will receive submissions for projects that would use the NMR, then allocate the resources accordingly, Terskikh said. Although some researchers may be able to visit the facility on site, the NRC is providing a tool called Spectrogrid that will allow others to access it remotely via a Web portal to book the instruments, as well as data acquisition and data visualization. The NRC will also provide assistance with running the equipment, Terskikh added.

Besides fostering research that could lead to new battery composites and more sensitive sensors, the NMR could also be used in the area of quantum computing, which would process several numbers at once instead of the binary ones and zeros processed in computers today. Researchers at IBM, for example, have built prototype quantum computers by using (NMR) techniques to measure and manipulate the spin of individual atoms.

“NMR is one of the only tools today where people are seriously working on quantum computing,” Terskikh said, explaining that researchers use radio-frequency pulses to change the energy level of an atom. “You can program information by applying these pulses.”

The Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo uses its own NMR equipment to conduct its research, but it is a 700 MHz model. David Fransen, the Institute’s executive director, said although it is not currently doing any quantum computing research projects with the NRC, it will be evaluating the potential for collaboration over the next couple of months.

“We’re really pleased that they’re putting it in place,” Fransen said. “The capacity of a 900 MHz (spectrometer) obviously takes it to a different level. That’s why we’re interested in it.”

The University of Waterloo is planning to add new buildings to its campus later this year. There was some consideration given to making making room for its own 900 MHz NMR instrument, but Fransen said the NRC facility change those plans.

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