Accidental Amplification
November 26, 2013

Accidental Amplification

Whenever I’m subject to an accident, it usually involves sharp objects, hot surfaces, or fragile electronics falling into a toilet. Despite my best efforts, Murphy and his law always seem to catch up to me. Fortunately for the rest of us, not everyone’s accidents are quite so terrible. In fact, some pretty fascinating inventions were discovered completely on accident. Recently, researchers at Washington State University stumbled across such a serendipity when a sample of strontium titanate was accidentally left out for an entire day. Upon returning to the crystal, they noticed that the conductivity had been heightened by a factor of 400.

This process is known as ‘persistent photoconductivity,’ and while it’s not apparently a new phenomena, this appears to be one of the strongest examples. Scientists have already discovered ways to create superconduction, but that requires extremely low temperatures. The fact that this crystal’s conductivity was so heightened at room temperature makes it more useful for current applications, such as computers and data storage.

According to Matthew McClusky, the head of physics at WSU, a theoretical device based around the concept of persistent photoconductivity could easily surpass standard surface-level data storage, filling instead the entirety of the crystal in a new-fangled approach that sounds like something straight out of Star Wars: holographic memory. In some ways, this reminds me of the discovery made as recent as this January, where scientists were able to store (and retrieve) data from a strand of synthetic DNA. Just when you think technology is beginning to hit a plateau, someone makes a new discovery that blows everything out of the water.

The idea of computing through crystals appeals to me on two levels. First, it gives off just enough of a science-fiction vibe to excite the child within me. Let’s be honest — the idea just sounds neat. Second, the concept of going from surface-level data storage to full-volume data storage means we’re looking at a multiplicative increase in potential effectiveness. If the practical applications of this research are quite as promising as this new discovery suggests, we could be looking at a data storage jump that makes the megabyte to gigabyte (and from giga- to tera-) look like a hop across the pond.

Unfortunately, despite my predilection towards computers, I lack the research, resources, and raw brainpower of the folks up at WSU, so I have no way of knowing for sure whether this will pan out, nor how fast this theoretical technology might actually be available to the public. Considering it’s still the proverbial apple falling on Newton’s head, I’d be surprised if it showed up within the next five years. That said, who knows? It seems the more technology grows, the faster it expands upon itself. Perhaps this time within the next couple years, we’ll be looking at Black Friday sales on full-volume crystal hard drives.

I doubt it. But I kind of hope so.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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