Experiment points to new spin on storage

Scientists control the spin rate of atoms to digitally encode and store an image inside of a liquid crystal molecule. Their retrieval of the image marks a step toward advanced data storage.

Evan Hansen Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Department Editor Evan Hansen runs the Media section at CNET News.com. Before joining CNET he reported on business, technology and the law at American Lawyer Media.
Evan Hansen
2 min read
In an experiment that could bring the computing world closer to an advanced method of data storage, a team of scientists successfully reproduced an image that was digitally encoded and momentarily stored within a liquid crystal molecule.

Researchers at the University of Oklahoma published details of their "molecular photography" experiment in the Oct. 15 issue of the Journal of Chemical Physics. Although the experiment offers no immediate practical applications, the scientists said they are hopeful their findings will one day help unlock the vast capacity for information storage that theoretically lies dormant within one of nature's basic building blocks.

According to the paper, the group was able to imprint a 32-by-32-pixel pattern onto a molecule and then retrieve it. Made up of 1,024 bits, the pattern was the largest set of data yet written onto, and read from, a molecule.

"We consider this to be a first step for storing a large amount of information in a molecule," said University of Oklahoma professor Bing Fung, who co-authored the article with Anatoly Khitrin and Vladimir Ermakov. "Hopefully, it will lead to further development."

Molecules offer writable characteristics in the form of the spin of their constituent atoms. Assuming scientists could precisely control the spin states of those atoms over an extended length of time, those scientists could create a useful binary system for storing data. The molecule used by the Oklahoma team, for example, has only 19 hydrogen atoms, but the spin states of those atoms could be arranged in many different patterns, offering an enormous canvas for encoding zeros and ones.

The Oklahoma researchers may have taken an important step toward a molecular storage system by discovering a way to enhance data encoding compared with other techniques employed to date. In their experiment, the researchers were able to use radio waves to alter the spin states of the atoms in the test molecule and lock them into a readable pattern for a limited period of time.

The technique involved placing the test material in a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer and subjecting it to two consecutive radio wave pulses. The researchers credited the second pulse with creating a readable frequency with a high enough resolution to capture and reproduce the 1,024 bit test pattern.

Major hurdles remain, however, before molecules can be used as storage media--including the duration of the data imprint. The Oklahoma team, for example, was able to control the atoms' spin states for only about one-tenth of a second.

Fung added that the experiment involved large numbers of molecules encoded with identical information and decoded in parallel in order to compensate for the weakness of the signal.