Richard Robert Ernst

(b. 1933)

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(1933–) Swiss chemist

Born at Winterthur in Switzerland, Ernst was educated at the Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, where he obtained his PhD in 1962. He spent the period from 1963 until 1968 working as a research chemist for Varian Associates, Palo Alto, California, before returning to the Federal Institute where he was appointed professor of physical chemistry in 1976.

The technique of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) described by I. I. Rabi in 1944, and developed by Felix Bloch and Edward Purcell in the late 1940s, quickly became a recognized tool for the exploration of atomic nuclei. As nuclei possess a magnetic moment they will tend to align themselves with any strong magnetic field. If, however, nuclei are subjected to radiowaves of the appropriate frequency, they will be raised to a higher energy level, and align themselves in a different direction with respect to the field. With the removal of the radio signal, the nuclei will revert to their original energy state by emitting radiation of a characteristic frequency. The frequency of the radiation emitted allows nuclei to be identified, and the structure of certain molecules determined.

But, the process was time-consuming because, in order to find which radiofrequency a sample responded to, it was necessary to sweep the applied frequency through a range of frequencies. Ernst developed a technique in which the sample was subjected to a single high-energy radio pulse. In this way numerous nuclei would respond and emit an apparently jumbled signal. But Ernst showed that, with the aid of Fourier analysis and a computer, the signal could be unraveled into its separate components. Ernst's procedure considerably increased the sensitivity of NMR.

In 1970 Ernst made a further advance. He found that if he subjected his samples to a sequence of high-energy pulses instead of to a single pulse, it enabled him to use NMR techniques to study much larger molecules. Ernst's ‘two-dimensional analysis’, as it became known, opened the way to investigate complex biological molecules such as proteins. His work also laid the foundation for the development by Peter Mansfield and others of MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).

For his work on NMR Ernst was awarded the 1991 Nobel Prize for chemistry.

Subjects: Science and Mathematics.

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