Research Overview

The Pines Lab focuses on developing new methods and technology for nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), a powerful technique with the ability to non-destructively analyze materials and the interiors of solid objects. The most widely known application of NMR is clinical magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the human body, which enables diagnosis of medical anomalies such as tumors and inflammation. However, NMR is also used for a host of other purposes, including elucidation of the components and structure of chemicals, such as proteins or pharmaceuticals; imaging of brain activity; process monitoring in food and cosmetics manufacturing; and identification of fossil fuels located underground.

The nuclei of many types of atoms have a property called “spin,” which causes them to react to magnetic fields as if they were tiny bar magnets. Among the nuclei with spin are some of the most abundant in our bodies and in the world around us, including hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen. Magnetic resonance operates by monitoring the behavior of these nuclear spins inside a magnetic field, where they “precess,” or rotate. Properties of the spin precession signal, such as its duration and frequency, are used to identify the types of atoms involved and to characterize their local environment, both microscopic and macroscopic. Efficient detection generally requires a large polarization, in which a large fraction of the spins are oriented along the same direction; this is usually accomplished by placing the spins inside a very strong magnetic field, such as that produced inside a clinical MRI scanner, or by using optical polarization.

For over forty years, the Pines Lab has tackled some of the most challenging problems in magnetic resonance, developing methods that have since become widely adopted. Among our contributions are processes that enable NMR analysis of solid materials, “cross-polarization” for transferring spin orientation between nuclei within a molecule, optical “hyperpolarization” (with lasers) of certain materials to attain near-complete spin orientation resulting in dramatic signal enhancement (now specifically optical hyperpolarization with green lasers) and low-field and zero-field NMR and imaging that do not require the presence of strong magnetic fields. Former lab members have continued their research in academic, industrial, and government laboratories around the world.

We currently focus on producing practical technologies to solve some of the most important issues in areas including materials science, quantum physics, physical chemistry, energy production, and health. Projects include:

These and other projects are described in much greater detail throughout the following pages.