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superconducting quantum interference device

A superconducting quantum interference device (SQUID) is a mechanism used to measure extremely weak signals, such as subtle changes in the human body's electromagnetic energy field. Using a device called a Josephson junction, a SQUID can detect a change of energy as much as 100 billion times weaker than the electromagnetic energy that moves a compass needle. A Josephson junction is made up of two superconductors, separated by an insulating layer so thin that electrons can pass through. A SQUID consists of tiny loops of superconductors employing Josephson junctions to achieve superposition: each electron moves simultaneously in both directions. Because the current is moving in two opposite directions, the electrons have the ability to perform as qubits (that theoretically could be used to enable quantum computing). SQUIDs have been used for a variety of testing purposes that demand extreme sensitivity, including engineering, medical, and geological equipment. Because they measure changes in a magnetic field with such sensitivity, they do not have to come in contact with a system that they are testing.

SQUIDs are usually made of either a lead alloy (with 10% gold or indium) and/or niobium, often consisting of the tunnel barrier sandwiched between a base electrode of niobium and the top electrode of lead alloy. A radio frequency (RF) SQUID is made up of one Josephson junction, which is mounted on a superconducting ring. An oscillating current is applied to an external circuit, whose voltage changes as an effect of the interaction between it and the ring. The magnetic flux is then measured. A direct current (DC) SQUID, which is much more sensitive, consists of two Josephson junctions employed in parallel so that electrons tunneling through the junctions demonstrate quantum interference, dependent upon the strength of the magnetic field within a loop. DC SQUIDs demonstrate resistance in response to even tiny variations in a magnetic field, which is the capacity that enables detection of such minute changes.

One of the device's most promising uses is in magnetoencephalography (MEG), the process of measuring magnetic fields to enable brain imaging. Physical processes, such as muscular or neural activity, in humans (and other animals) create magnetic fields as small as a thousand billionth of a tesla (as a comparison, a fridge magnet generates about a tenth of a tesla). DC SQUIDs, contained in a helmet-like device, measure the currents created by neural activity. The possible SQUID neuroscience applications are myriad. A recent study used SQUID-enabled magnetoencephalography to measure the surprisingly large level of activity in consumer's brains that is evoked by choosing between (for example) brands of ketchup.

This was last updated in April 2007

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