In a paper that appeared in Nature Nanotechnology today, IBM (NYSE:IBM) researchers have reported that they have used magnetic resonance imaging techniques to visualize objects as small as 90 nanometers. From a short-term, commercial perspective, this news is nothing particularly exciting. But if you're a long-term investor, it should pique your interest, because this advance represents a major milestone in being able to take 3-D images of all of the atoms in a single molecule.

For instance, such a detailed level of imaging could provide scientists and researchers a greatly enhanced understanding of how proteins function within the human body. That knowledge, in turn, could lead to the creation of new mechanisms for drug treatments.

And it doesn't stop there. Computer engineers could use this technology to pinpoint the precise location of specific atoms within a tiny nanoelectronic structure, to create better-performing devices. Similarly, material scientists could employ the tool to ensure that high-performance materials -- such as the type that will be used in the construction of next-generation aircraft -- don't experience any breakdowns at the atomic level.

It is too early to determine whether IBM envisions selling this equipment to individual companies or whether it intends to sell "access" to the equipment -- and consulting expertise -- to users. But it is clear that a number of clients in the pharmaceutical, aerospace, and chemical industries with whom IBM already has pre-existing relationships -- including Pfizer (NYSE:PFE), Ford (NYSE:F), and Dow Chemical (NYSE:DOW) -- will be very interested in getting their hands on either the equipment or the capability, and that'll be good news for investors.

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Fool contributor Jack Uldrich owns stock IBM. The Fool has a strict disclosure policy.