The absorption of electromagnetic radiation at a suitable precise frequency by a nucleus with a nonzero magnetic moment in an external magnetic field. The phenomenon occurs if the nucleus has nonzero spin, in which case it behaves as a small magnet. In an external magnetic field, the nucleus's magnetic moment vector precesses about the field direction but only certain orientations are allowed by quantum rules. Thus, for hydrogen (spin of ½) there are two possible states in the presence of a field, each with a slightly different energy. Nuclear magnetic resonance is the absorption of radiation at a photon energy equal to the difference between these levels, causing a transition from a lower to a higher energy state. For practical purposes, the difference in energy levels is small and the radiation is in the radiofrequency region of the electromagnetic spectrum. It depends on the field strength.
NMR can be used for the accurate determination of nuclear moments. It can also be used in a sensitive form of magnetometer to measure magnetic fields. In medicine,magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has been developed, in which images of tissue are produced by magnetic-resonance techniques.
The main application of NMR is as a technique for chemical analysis and structure determination, known as NMR spectroscopy. It depends on the fact that the electrons in a molecule shield the nucleus to some extent from the field, causing different atoms to absorb at slightly different frequencies (or at slightly different fields for a fixed frequency). Such effects are known as chemical shifts. There are two methods of NMR spectroscopy. In continuous wave (CW) NMR, the sample is subjected to a strong field, which can be varied in a controlled way over a small region. It is irradiated with radiation at a fixed frequency, and a detector monitors the field at the sample. As the field changes, absorption corresponding to transitions occurs at certain values, and this causes oscillations in the field, which induce a signal in the detector.Fourier transform (FT) NMR uses a fixed magnetic field and the sample is subjected to a high-intensity pulse of radiation covering a range of frequencies. The signal produced is analysed mathematically to give the NMR spectrum. The most common nucleus studied is 1H. For instance, an NMR spectrum of ethanol (CH3CH2OH) has three peaks in the ratio 3:2:1, corresponding to the three different hydrogen-atom environments. The peaks also have a fine structure caused by interaction between spins in the molecule. Other nuclei can also be used for NMR spectroscopy (e.g. 13C, 14N, 19F) although these generally have lower magnetic moment and natural abundance than hydrogen. See also electron paramagnetic resonance; ENDOR.