Piotr Put and Danila Barskiy demonstrating portable zero-to-ultralow-field NMR spectrometer
The diverse work of Mainz-based physicists in the field of nuclear magnetic resonance is being boosted by a new highly application-oriented approach: In October 2020, Dr. Danila Barskiy will join Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) to set up a group focusing on nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, the objective being to explore approaches that do not require magnetic fields for chemical, biological, and medical applications. To do so, he has been awarded a Sofja Kovalevskaja Award worth EUR 1.6 million by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. “We are very pleased that Danila Barskiy and his research have been honored in this way. His work not only covers new and previously unexplored aspects, but also excellently complements research we are already undertaking here in Mainz,” said Professor Dmitry Budker, Barskiy’s host at the Institute of Physics at JGU and at the Helmholtz Institute Mainz (HIM).
Nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy is a standard analytical technique used to study the structure and dynamics of materials and living objects. With its sister technology Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), NMR spectroscopy is used in organic chemistry, biochemistry, and medicine with fluids being positioned particularly well to this type of analysis. However, NMR spectroscopy is reaching its limits: Due to the weak interaction between atomic nuclei and the applied magnetic field, signals produced by NMR-active nuclei are typically extremely low and, therefore, require high magnetic fields for detection. This rules out the possibility of developing portable point-of-care devices, among other things.
Researchers aim to develop compact and portable NMR devices
Sofja Kovalevskaja Award winner Dr. Danila Barskiy has been looking at ways of improving NMR spectroscopy for around ten years, most recently at the University of California, Berkeley, from where he will be making the transition to Mainz. He is pursuing various approaches with the aim of designing compact and portable NMR devices that will ultimately be as small as a chip and affordable for wide analytical markets. According to Barskiy, the problem is the following: “Despite improvements being made, most NMR systems are still not compact because they need field strengths of several Tesla in order to distinguish between the chemical signatures in an NMR spectrum.”
Barskiy’s new interdisciplinary group will focus on developing miniaturized, portable NMR sensors. These sensors would employ the principle of zero to ultra-low field magnetic resonance, or ZULF NMR for short, using optically pumped magnetometers which would not require any strong magnetic fields. In addition to applications in chemical and biomedical research, such sensors could find use for detecting metabolic disorders at an early stage.
By heading up a work group at Mainz, Barskiy also wants to develop hyperpolarizers for benchtop NMR spectrometers. Hyperpolarization improves the alignment of nuclear spins in a sample, thereby amplifying their NMR signals. The scientist predicts that application-specific hyperpolarizers for tabletop NMR devices may be soon available and that they will be about the size of a coffee machine. And with a tabletop NMR device, it will be possible to perform highly sensitive analyses of fuels, biofluids such as blood or urine, and food extracts. “This will democratize NMR spectroscopy by providing access to wider audiences and will accelerate technological progress in developing countries,” Barskiy emphasized.
Long-standing collaboration with experts from UC Berkeley paves the way for new research
This represents another positive result of the collaboration between UC Berkeley, in particular the laboratory of Professor Alexander Pines, and the Mainz group led by Professor Dmitry Budker. “We have been working very productively with Professor Pines and his team, including Dr. Barskiy, for many years and developed ZULF NMR together,” said Budker. “Danila Barskiy was one of the first to recognize the importance of this research in the biological and medical context.” Budker points out that Barskiy’s plans fit perfectly with the work being done at Mainz, which is also being pursued as part of the European Union’s ZULF NMR Marie Curie Innovative Training Network together with other European partners.
Danila Barskiy studied at Novosibirsk State University and earned a doctorate in physical chemistry for his research at the International Tomography Center (ITC SB RAS). In 2015, he began working as a postdoc at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and subsequently joined Professor Alexander Pines’ team at the University of California, Berkeley in 2017. “The conditions in Mainz are unique for me. The planned collaborations and the resources available fit perfectly with the projects I am pursuing. Thanks to the Sofja Kovalevskaja Award, I can not only begin an independent research career, the multidisciplinary research in Germany is promoted as a whole,” emphasized Barskiy.
The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation gave the 2020 Sofja Kovalevskaja Award to eight international research talents aged between 29 and 36 years. It is one of the most richly endowed research awards in Germany and provides young researchers with venture capital for innovative projects at an early stage in their careers. They undertake research for up to five years at German universities and research institutions and build up their own work groups at their host institutes. The award is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).
Interactions between spins are fundamental for understanding magnetic resonance. One of the most important ones is the magnetic dipole-dipole interaction. Spins act as tiny magnets, thus, they can interact with each other directly through space, pretty much the same way as classical magnetic dipoles (Figure 1). In NMR, dipole-dipole interactions very often determine lineshapes of solid-state samples and relaxation rates of nuclei in the liquid state.
In many NMR textbooks, you can find the following expression for dipole-dipole (DD) Hamiltonian between two spins 1 and 2:
where , and are gyromagnetic ratios of the spins, is the distance between them. Meaning of the angle can be seen from the Figure 2. But how was this expression derived?
In physics, I rarely struggled with imagining abstract things and concepts, but rather, I was often lazy to do math thoroughly and derive equations from the beginning to the end. That’s why I decided to write here a fullderivation, from the beginning to the end, for the Hamiltonian of interacting nuclear spins. We will start from a classical expression of the magnetic field produced by the dipole and finish by the analysis of a truncated dipole-dipole Hamiltonian. Usually, you don’t see such a full derivation in textbooks. Maybe, this is because textbooks have limited space… Luckily, here we do not have such limitations, thus, we can have some fun here! Let’s go then! 🙂
So, we write the magnetic field produced by a magnetic dipole as
The energy of a magnetic dipole interacting with the magnetic field produced by a magnetic dipole (dipole-dipole interaction) is therefore
The transition from classical to quantum mechanics is realized by substituting the measurable quantities by corresponding quantum mechanical operators:
here is a factor which depends only on the types of the nuclear spins and the distance between them, and a tensor of dipole-dipole interactions contains information about the mutual orientation of two spins:
here is a unit matrix. Note that we write Hamiltonian in units of [rad/s], that is why one is missing. In spherical coordinates:
Looks good, doesn’t it? Now, let’s evaluate the product :
Let’s color terms to make it easier grouping them:
Groupling the red terms gives
Let’s not forget about intrinsic connections of spin angular momentum with raising and lowering operators:
Therefore, grouping the red terms gives
Groupling the blue terms gives
where we took into consideration that
Red and blue terms can be combined nicely to form
Now let’s focus on purple terms:
Overall, we have split our dipolar Hamiltonian into 6 term, so-called “Dipolar Alphabet”:
To summarize, the Hamiltonian of two interacting spins is a matrix composed of 6 operators. Each of the letters of the dipolar alphabet corresponds to certain matrix elements in the final Hamiltonian (Figure 3).
Without an externally imposed direction in space (for example, in the case of two equivalent spins in zero magnetic field), all of the terms of the dipole-dipole Hamiltonian need to be used for calculating an NMR spectrum. This is because all orientations in space are equivalent. However, in the presence of the external high magnetic field, the Hamiltonian can be simplified via the use of so-called “secular approximation”.
The secular approximation concerns the case where the Hamiltonian is the sum of two terms:
where is a “large” operator and is a “small” operator. In our case, can be an operator describing the interaction with the magnetic field (Zeeman Hamiltonian) and is DD Hamiltonian. Eigenstates of the Zeeman Hamiltonian are familiar αα, αβ, βα, ββ. Generally, does not commute with , therefore, if written in the eigenbasis of , it has finite elements everywhere.
The secular approximation for means that we leave only the blocks that correspond to the eigenvalue structure of the operator (Figure 4) and disregard all other elements.
In general, we can omit a matrix element that is much smaller than
For homonuclear case (e.g., two interacting protons), this means that only the first two terms of the dipolar Alphabet will survive:
Overall, this is how you go from the classical description of the magnetic field of the dipole to the truncated form of the Hamiltonian in the high nagnetic field. In the next post I will show how this Hamiltonian leads to the characteristic lineshape of the NMR line for solids.
To begin my blog, let’s introduce parahydrogen. Lately, this little molecule has been attracting a lot of attention in the magnetic resonance community due to tremendous opportunities it brings for NMR/MRI signal enhancement. I will explain a bit later how this parahydrogen-based NMR signal enhancement works. But first, let’s talk about physical origins of parahydrogen!
Parahydrogen (para-H2) is a nuclear spin isomer of a hydrogen molecule. Nuclear spin isomerism is a very special form of isomerism. Unlike “traditional” molecular isomers (molecules having the same atomic composition but different chemical structure) and isotopologues (isomers that differ only in their isotopic composition), nuclear spin isomers are chemically identical: they have exactly the same atomic (and even isotopic) structure. However, nuclear spin isomers differ in the nuclear spin state of their atoms. It turns out that this tiny change (energy difference associated with nuclear spin transitions is only ~0.1 J/mol) may lead to different thermodynamic and spectroscopic properties of molecules. So, how does this work?
Unfortunately (or fortunately), we will have to use rules of quantum mechanics and some math. In quantum mechanics, in order to describe properties of quantum systems (atoms, molecules, etc.), physicists use wavefunctions. By knowing a wavefunction one will be able to calculate probabilities to find a quantum system in different states (namely, a squared modulus of the wavefunction determines the probability to find a system in a given state). Let’s look how it works taking as an example hydrogen molecule.
Hydrogen molecule consists of two hydrogen atoms (H) and is denoted as Н2. Each atom has a nucleus – a proton which is a spin-1/2 particle. Physicists say that hydrogen molecule has several degrees of freedom: translational, rotational, vibrational, etc., and these degrees of freedom can be considered independent. In other words, rotation of the hydrogen molecule does not depend on how and where the molecule is moving and how it is vibrating. Each degree of freedom has a wavefunction associated with it. I will use different colors to describe electron and nuclear wavefunctions. A position of the molecule in space, as well as its rotation and vibrations, are determined by the position and movements of nuclei, therefore, these degrees of freedom are described by translational (ψtr), rotational (ψrot), vibrational (ψvib), and nuclear spin (ψspin) wavefunctions. Atomic nuclei are surrounded by electrons which provides the bonding between the nuclei. The wavefunction describing movements of electrons is called orbital wavefunction ψorb, and state of the electron spins is described by the electron spin wavefunction ψspin.
Since probabilities of independent events are multiplied, the total wavefunction is a product of the above-mentioned wavefunctions:
ψtot = ψtr·ψrot·ψvib·ψspin·ψorb·ψspin
However, rules of quantum mechanics are trickier than they may sound. According to Pauli’s principle, the total wavefunction of the system of spins-1/2 particles has to be antisymmetric with respect to the exchange (also called permutation) of two identical particles. What does this mean?
Let’s take for example ψspin. A system consisting of two spins-1/2 can be described as α1α2, β1β2 or combinations α1β2+β1α2, α1β2–β1α2. Here α and β denote the projection of nuclear spin angular momentum along the quantization axis (more on this stuff later, for now, one can imagine the state α as a magnetic moment – spin – pointing up along the external magnetic field and the state β as a magnetic moment pointing down, opposite to the field). Indexes 1 and 2 say to which nucleus the spin belongs. For example, the state α1α2 means that both nuclear spins point along the field while the state β1β2means that both spins point opposite to the field. The combination states α1β2+β1α2 and α1β2–β1α2 are more interesting. Neither of spins points along or opposite to the field but if we take one spin and determine its orientation, the second spin will take the opposite orientation. We can see now that two spins are correlated: the state of the second spin depends on the state of the first one.
Now let’s look what happens if we exchange (permute) particles. Mathematically, permutation simply means interchange of indexes (1→2, 2→1). One can see that upon permutation of indexes the first three states do not change: α2α1= α1α2, β2β1 = β1β2, (α2β1+β2α1) = (α1β2+β1α2), but the last state changes the sign: (α2β1–β2α1) = –(α1β2–β1α2). Therefore, the first three states are called symmetric wavefunctions and the last one – antisymmetric with respect to permutation of particles.
So, our hydrogen molecule contains four spin-1/2 particles: two electrons and two nuclei). Permutation of electrons can only affect ψorband ψspin. The first wave function, corresponding to the electronic ground state, is symmetric with respect to the electrons, the second, the electron spin wavefunction, is antisymmetric, and the rest are independent of the electrons’ variables and, thus, symmetric. Therefore, Pauli’s principle is fulfilled for electrons: the total wavefunction is antisymmetric with respect to permutation of electrons, thanks to antisymmetric ψspin. Permutation of nuclei can affect two wavefunctions: ψspin (as we just saw above) and ψrot. A mathematical expression for ψrot is rather complicated but it is not necessary to know its full form to understand the symmetry properties.
Figure 1. Schematic energy diagram of rotational levels of the hydrogen molecule.
This is because rotating diatomic molecules possess a set of stable rotational states, which can be described by only one parameter – the rotational quantum number J. This number can take integer values 0, 1, 2, 3, … This means that molecule can be in a stable state with J = 0, J = 1, J = 2, etc. (Figure 1). It turns out that the symmetry (with respect to permutation of nuclei) of the rotational wavefunction can be described as
P12·ψrot = (-1)J·ψrot
where P12represents the permutation operator that interchanges the nuclei’s positions (indexes). This means that the rotational wavefunction is symmetric for even rotational states (J = 0, 2, 4, …) and antisymmetric for odd rotational states (J = 1, 3, 5, …).
Coming back to Pauli’s principle, permutation of nuclei should lead to the change of sign of the total wavefunction. Since only ψspin and ψrot can change sign upon such permutation, these two wavefunctions become connected: even (symmetric) rotational wavefunctions must be combined with the antisymmetric nuclear wavefunction (α1β2–β1α2), whereas each antisymmetric rotational wavefunction has to be associated with one of the three symmetric spin functions. All this is required to yield a total wavefunction being antisymmetric with respect to the exchange of the nuclei. This is where two hydrogen spin isomers come from. One is called parahydrogen (para-H2), having an antisymmetric nuclear spin wavefunction (α1β2–β1α2) and existing only in even rotational states, and the other called orthohydrogen (ortho-H2), having a symmetric nuclear spin wavefunction and existing only in the odd rotational states.
It follows from the Pauli’s principle that nuclear spin state and rotational state of the hydrogen molecule are strictly correlated. This is remarkable, because the notion of independence (which allowed us to write a wavefunction as a product of individual wavefunctions) has led to complete dependence of these degrees of freedom from each other!
Remarkably, parahydrogen and orthohydrogen can be seen as two individual gases because their thermodynamic properties (boiling point, heat capacity, etc.) are slightly different. This is not surprising taking into account the fact that molecules constituting these two gases are rotating differently!
Importantly, conversion between the two states occurs extremely slowly because the transition between symmetric and antisymmetric nuclear spin states are forbidden by the selection rules of quantum mechanics. Therefore, after its production parahydrogen may be stored for long periods before use in a tank as an individual gas, as the relaxation rate of the parahydrogen back to room-temperature equilibrium can be on the order of months.
However, the use of paramagnetic catalysts (i.e., activated charcoal, nickel, hydrated iron(III) oxide) promotes the establishment of Boltzmann thermodynamic equilibrium between ortho-H2/para-H2states for a given temperature at greatly accelerated rates. This happens because paramagnetic materials can create a strong inhomogeneous magnetic field on the atomic scale. In such fields the two hydrogen atoms are no longer equivalent, thus, spin-flip transitions between ortho-H2 and para-H2are no longer forbidden. In practice, normal hydrogen gas (i.e., equilibrium ratio of spin isomers at room temperature) consisting of 75% ortho– and 25% para-hydrogen is passed through a chamber filled with paramagnetic catalyst and maintained at cryogenic temperatures, where the equilibration to the isomer ratio governed by the Boltzmann distribution occurs. For example, a parahydrogen generator operating at 77 K (obtained conveniently by a liquid-N2bath) yields a mixture with ~50% parahydrogen, whereas the designs based on cryo-chillers (e.g. T~20 K) yield >99% parahydrogen (Figure 2). I should note that the enrichment of hydrogen with para-isomer happens so easily only because of the big energy gap between rotational spin states. This, in turn, is due to the small mass of molecular hydrogen (in general, the energy difference between rotational spin states is inversely proportional to the moment of inertia of a rotating molecule).
The existence of nuclear spin isomers of molecular hydrogen (which was experimentally confirmed by the early 1930s) was one of the first triumphs of quantum mechanics. Indeed, the citation of the Nobel Prize awarded to Werner Heisenberg in 1932 stated that he had “created quantum mechanics, the application of which led to the discovery of the two allotropic forms of hydrogen”!
Knowledge about ortho– to para-H2 conversion is important for the storage of liquid hydrogen (especially as a rocket fuel). The difference in energy associated with the different rotational levels means that energy is released when ortho-H2 converts to para-H2, and energy is absorbed in the reverse process. This phenomenon can be thought of as a latent heat of conversion. If one quickly liquefies normal hydrogen, it will still have 3:1 ortho:para composition which will eventually lead to the heat release. This can vaporize a significant portion of hydrogen and break the impermeability of the storage container. At the dawn of industrial liquid hydrogen production, this presented a major problem. Modern hydrogen liquefying processes now ensure that the liquid hydrogen has reached equilibrium concentration at 99.8% para-H2 before being transported and stored for use.
One may ask how can para-H2 be important for NMR? Indeed, this spin isomer has a zero total nuclear spin and, thus, it does not possess 1H NMR spectrum. However, para-H2 is a pure quantum mechanical state and a highly organized spin order which is readily achievable simply by cooling. Pure state means that all para-H2 molecules are described by the same wavefunction – (α1β2–β1α2). For comparison, ortho-H2 is a mixture of three wavefunctions, α1α2, α1β2+β1α2 and β1β2 and, thus, it is not a pure state. It turns out that once you have a quantum mechanically pure state, you can manipulate it and transfer the spin order from one form to another. This is how parahydrogen-induced polarization (PHIP) and signal amplification by reversible exchange (SABRE) work: they transfer NMR-silent singlet spin order of para-H2 into observable nuclear magnetization.