Atomic Data Storage
December 7, 2013

Atomic Data Storage

It would seem that science and technology have a penchant for discovering ways to miniaturize everything. Smaller tech and smaller devices mean more space, and whether it’s in your pocket or on your hard drive, having more space is rarely a bad thing. Not too long ago, I wrote about the accidental discovery strontium titanate’s photoconductivity, which has potential applications for multiplying data storage units by utilizing volume over surface area. Now, a conglomerate of scientists from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, the Max Planck Institute of Microstructure Physics, and the University of Leipzig is looking at ways to reduce the size of the physical structure that actually holds the data. It’s safe to say they’ve set their sights pretty high. Their current goal is one byte per atom. That’s right. Per atom. Wulf Wulfhekel and his team of researchers have found a way to stabilize the rotation of a holmium atom spinning on a fixed metallic surface. This creates the kind of magnetic field necessary for computing device to talk to one another. Such atoms create the building blocks for a potential atomic network that could potentially increase storage capacities for computers even further.

Currently, the team is working on a way to reduce spin scattering, a phenomenon that occurs between the electrons of the underlying material and the atom itself. Normally, the two elements interact on a fairly regular basis, and according to Arthur Ernst, it is this interaction that normally destabilizes the atomic spin. So far, the team has had success using a platinum substrate and temperatures near absolute zero. Such a combination resulted in a 10-minute long spin, which Wulfhekel estimated as one billion times its normal rotation. Ernst explained such a thing is possible because the unique atomic properties of platinum and holmium make them essentially undetectable to one another under the right circumstances. Once the spin is stabilized, the addition of an outside magnetic force will allow them to write data.

While what they’ve already discovered is exciting, so too is what this research suggests. Wolfhekel believes that this particular process could be yet another one of several strides towards quantum computing, a process that relies on quantum phenomenon instead of transistors to send, receive, and interpret data. It’s still a relatively new technology, but it’s extremely promising — even moreso if research projects such as this continue to see such success. Obviously, producing these effects under laboratory conditions is nowhere near the level it needs to be for any sort of commercial development. Last I checked, my PC isn’t capable of operating at near-absolute zero, nor does my pocketbook like the idea of anything with the word “platinum” in it. Still, with that said, the first step is discovering that these conditions are possible at all. Even though it currently requires very specific conditions, given several years, we may very well see the technology expanded upon.

I’m looking forward to seeing where this, along with the plethora of other recent technological advances, takes computing. It’s going to be a very interesting ride.

Image Credit: Jaswe / Shutterstock

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