In the hospital world, magnetic resonance imaging is used in the study of patients' tissues. The foundation of the imaging is a phenomenon that is called nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR).
At the NMR laboratory at the University of Oulu microscopic samples, instead of entire patients, are examined. For instance, by studying the microstructures of heat-treated wood it is possible to find an optimal processing temperature at which the structure of the wood does not yet start to disintegrate too much, while achieving the benefits of the process.
Physicist Ville-Veikko Telkki and his research group are developing new NMR methods for the study of various materials, as well as chemicals in gaseous form. The aim is to achieve more sensitive and more versatile methods.
Ville-Veikko Telkki's work with NMR is mainly basic research, but he sees extensive potential for applications in the method. Ultrafast measurement makes it possible to measure the metabolism reaction of a cancer cell, for instance.
The Academy of Finland recently decided to grant Telkki five years’ worth of research funding for work on ultrafast Laplace NMR methods. These make it possible to get information on the movements of molecules in less than a second.
Now a Danish research group wants to apply the method developed in Oulu for studying the metabolism of cells. Telkki is enthusiastic about the new opportunity for collaboration.
"Our methods could possibly even be utilised in the study of the metabolism of cancer cells. Ultrafast measurements would be needed in order to observe a metabolic reaction", Telkki explains.
Two research groups
NMR research at the University of Oulu comprises the experimental side run by Telkki, and the research group headed by Professor Juha Vaara, which focuses on calculations and theory. Cooperation between the groups makes it possible to combine experiments and high-level theoretical modelling in the research.
One of the fathers of NMR research in Oulu is Professor Jukka Jokisaari, who has already retired. Telkki is continuing his work with experimental research.
"Building a functional research group and acquiring the equipment is hard work. Thanks to the work of Professor Jokisaari we have a good research infrastructure, which is a prerequisite for high-quality research", Telkki says.
Telkki and his group do plenty of basic research without any immediate goals of developing applications or commercialisation. However, he sees possibilities for the NMR methods to develop into something significant for everyday life and health.
"NMR is a basic tool for chemists in determining molecular structures, but its potential has not necessarily been exploited to its full potential. Many fields going all the way from the natural sciences to medicine and technical sciences could benefit from the method", Telkki explains.
At the moment there are six NMR spectrometry devices at the NMR laboratory. Telkki describes the device as a "drum" where the sample is placed in the middle. The device has a powerful magnetic field, making it possible to disturb magnetic atomic nuclei. The price of the equipment runs in the millions of euros.
The NMR method is used to study gases, liquids, as well as solid matter. For example, x-rays can be used only for studying the structure of solids.
"It is exciting that it is possible to use microreactors to get images of gases that are invisible to the eye and their reactions", Telkki says.
The sample to be studied is placed in an NMR spectrometer, where a very powerful magnetic field is maintained with the help of a coil submerged in liquid helium at a temperature of -269 degrees. The magnetic field creates movement in the molecules of the substance to be measured, and the final result is an NMR spectrum which reveals the characteristics of the substance.
The laboratory is changing into a shared research infrastructure of the entire university, and Telkki hopes that more research groups might take advantage of the equipment.
Telkki is involved in developing more precise methods of measurement also for a mobile NMR device, the so-called NMR mouse. The NMR mouse can be taken to the material being studied, and there is no limit to the size of the sample.
"With the device it is possible to study, for instance, the structure of fungi or old paintings on the spot. It could be used in determining the authenticity of paintings, for instance", Telkki observes.
Unexpected results are interesting
Advances in research work rarely follow the steps anticipated in a research plan. Telkki feels that this is also part of the richness of the work.
"Some unexpected measurement result can turn out to be the most interesting. For instance, a result of one failed experiment was that we discovered a new method to measure the absorption of gas, and we also turned that into a great scientific article."
Coincidence is what also led Telkki to a career in research. "In my first year of studies I ran into a couple of my student friends in a hallway at the university. They were going to ask about a summer job at the department, and I decided to join them. Finally I ended up being the one who got the job", he laughs.
Telkki says that NMR is not easy to understand at the theoretical level but while working in the research group he saw the practical benefits of the methods. The 1.5 years that he spent as a post doc researcher at the University of California at Berkeley helped familiarise him with the field of international research. It is one of the top groups in NMR research.
”It is there that I learned the wise words 'collaborate or die'. In this respect the future looks nice, as our international network, both on the experimental and theoretical side of research, is constantly growing", Telkki points out.
Although the research is intense and the work days can stretch out, this father of four children has no problems disengaging from his work. "It is good that there is plenty of bustle at home. My children force me to think of other things and not just work", Telkki smiles.
Text: Heidi Hahtola
Photos: Tapio Mäkinen
This article is first published in Finnish in July 2016.
Last updated: 1.12.2017