Spintronics: A New Way To Store Digital Data Using powerful magnets, researchers have found a way to store digital data -- zeroes and ones -- in the spin of an atom's nucleus. In theory, this spin memory should be faster and require less energy than electrical charges stored in semiconductors.
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Spintronics: A New Way To Store Digital Data

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Spintronics: A New Way To Store Digital Data

Spintronics: A New Way To Store Digital Data

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Here in Washington, spin is everywhere. It's dizzying. Journalists, of course, would generally prefer to do without the spin and get to the straight facts. Physicists, on the other hand, love spin. In fact, researchers around the world are trying to use spin to revolutionize the world of computing. NPR's Joe Palca has the straight story.

JOE PALCA: In the world of atoms, things spin. Electrons spin, the nucleus at the center of atoms spins. It's this nuclear spin that physicist Christoph Boehme wants to make use of. It's possible to measure which way a nucleus is spinning. Physicists don't talk about spinning clockwise or counterclockwise. They call the spins either up or down.

Mr. CHRISTOPH BOEHME (Physicist, University of Utah): This up and down can now represent information. By saying, OK, an up means a one and a down means a zero.

PALCA: Storing and manipulating these zeroes and ones is at the heart of how computers work. Today, zeroes and ones are stored using electric charge -positive or negative. In the future, things might be different.

Mr. BOEHME: Instead of electronics, people want to use spins and build spintronics.

PALCA: Boehme and his colleagues at the University of Utah have come up with a way to store zeroes and ones using spin. They take a bunch of spinning nuclei -phosphorous nuclei, as it happens - use a powerful magnetic field to line them all up, cool them down to minus 452 degrees Fahrenheit, and then use electromagnetic pulses to set the spin either up or down as they liked. As they report in the journal Science, they were able to store information in spins for nearly two minutes. But that wasn't they key achievement.

Mr. BOEHME: The main focus of our study was to show you could actually read it with an electronic device.

PALCA: Meaning they could use conventional electronic instruments to read out the stored memory. Boehme readily admits the whole process is cumbersome now, but it should become less so in the future. And in theory, spin memory should be faster and take less energy to run than electronic memory.

Now Boehme is working with conventional bits of information - ups and downs, zeroes and ones - and someday spintronics might be used to make a really fast conventional computer. But there are limits to conventional computers.

Dr. JOHN MORTON (Physicist, University of Oxford): You can come up with problems that are just completely impossible for computers today to solve, even if you had all of the computers in the world working to solve it.

PALCA: John Morton is a physicist at the University of Oxford in England. He says spin can also be used to make the next generation of computers that can take advantage of the mind-bending world of quantum information.

Dr. MORTON: In quantum information, I can have a bit which is zero and one at the same time.

PALCA: If they ever can be made, quantum computers will blow conventional computers out of the water. This idea of being in two places at once is hard to explain. Morton says one way to think about it is to imagine there are multiple universes out there.

Dr. MORTON: You can, along those lines, think about a quantum computer as many parallel computers running across different universes.

PALCA: And as long as you can get those universes to talk with one another, then you have a very, very powerful computer. Now, don't feel bad if you're not quite getting why quantum computing is such a desirable thing to have.

Professor STEPHEN LYON (Electrical engineering, Princeton University): It's not an easy one to explain.

PALCA: Stephen Lyon is a professor of electrical engineering at Princeton University. He and his colleagues are always trying to entice undergrads to go into the field of quantum computing.

Prof. LYON: The approach we've been taking is to say, if you think of a number between one and four, with a quantum computer you could know the number every time with only a single guess. And that doesn't tell you at all how it works, but it does tell you that there's something in there that's a little different from what most people are used to.

PALCA: And because he's trying to entice students into the field, Lyon clearly thinks there's a bright future in quantum computing.

Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington.

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