There seems to be no end to the claims that the data storage technology of the future has just been found. But that hasn’t stopped one researcher from suggesting that his new discoveries could lead to read-write speeds several thousand times faster than anything now imagined for fancy magnetics or spintronics.
The new technology — or shall we say, science — is being developed by Joshua Turner at Stanford’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. He calls the idea “orbital computing” since the bit that stores the it would be the orbits of electrons around the nucleus of an atom. The goal is to be able to probe the electron clouds of single atoms using terahertz waves of just the right size. The catch is that to generate a tight enough pulse of sufficient intensity to do this, you need an accelerator two miles long. But if you manage that, you can switch electron states 10,000 times faster than transistor states can be switched.
Within the beamline of the accelerator is a device called a monochromator which is used to select the radiation of just the right size. It operates analogously to a prism selecting light of a certain color.
The atoms Joshua uses are bits of manganese combined with oxygen inside crystal known as manganite.
In materials like these, the macroscopic properties (like conductance) are controlled mainly by electron orbits known as “d-orbitals.” The state of these d-orbitals can be readily observed with X-rays, and they can be controlled as easily as adjusting the temperature. But temperature or other gross manipulations are relatively slow ways to try to read or write data, compact bunches of T-rays does the trick much better. To make the whole concept more practical, something a bit smaller than a city block may eventually be needed, but that’s not to say that everyone needs a personal computer that writes into d-orbitals.
Futurists today like to wax philosophical about femtotechnology, much in the way that nanotechnology was discussed in decades past. It is for now just a theoretical exercise, a thought experiment into the possible rather than the practical. Femtotech would be vastly more compact, and speedy, compared to even orbital computing. It would require matter to be in a state comparable to that of a neutron star, at temperatures and pressures well beyond our experience. T-rays would not even cut it here, but rather gamma rays would be needed for processing.
Not even Joshua Turner is expecting orbital computing to be a workable technology any time soon. Most of his experiments are aimed at understanding what might be going on. He is merely looking into the crystal ball with a telescope and seeing what is even imaginable.