Friday, December 17, 2010
Computer Memory Takes a Spin
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Spintronics memories should store quantum information on the
individual "spins" in the centers of atoms, rather than
electrons, according to University of Utah researchers.
University of Utah physicists stored information for 112 seconds
in what may become the world's tiniest computer memory: magnetic
"spins" in the centers or nuclei of atoms. Then the physicists
retrieved and read the data electronically - a big step toward
using the new kind of memory for both faster conventional and
superfast "quantum" computers.
"The length of spin memory we observed is more than adequate to
create memories for computers," says Christoph Boehme, an
associate professor of physics and senior author of the new
study, published Friday, Dec. 17 in the journal Science. "It's a
completely new way of storing and reading information."
However, some big technical hurdles remain: the nuclear spin
storage-and-read-out apparatus works only at 3.2 degrees Kelvin,
or slightly above absolute zero - the temperature at which atoms
almost freeze to a standstill, and only can jiggle a little bit.
And the apparatus must be surrounded by powerful magnetic fields
roughly 200,000 times stronger than Earth's.
"Yes, you could immediately build a memory chip this way, but do
you want a computer that has to be operated at 454 degrees below
zero Fahrenheit and in a big national magnetic laboratory
environment?" Boehme says. "First we want to learn how to do it
at higher temperatures, which are more practical for a device,
and without these strong magnetic fields to align the spins."
As for obtaining an electrical readout of data held within atomic
nuclei, "nobody has done this before," he adds.
Two years ago, another group of scientists reported storing
so-called quantum data for two seconds within atomic nuclei, but
they did not read it electronically, as Boehme and colleagues did
in the new study, which used classical data (0 or 1) rather than
quantum data (0 and 1 simultaneously). The technique was
developed in a 2006 study by Boehme, who showed it was feasible
to read data stored in the net magnetic spin of 10,000 electrons
in phosphorus atoms embedded in a silicon semiconductor.
The new study puts together nuclear storage of data with an
electrical readout of that data, and "that's what's new," Boehme
Modern computers are electronic, meaning that information is
processed and stored by flowing electricity in the form of
electrons, which are negatively charged subatomic particles that
orbit the nucleus of each atom. Transistors in computers are
electrical switches that store data as "bits" in which "off" (no
electrical charge) and "on" (charge is present) represent one bit
of information: either 0 or 1.
Quantum computers - a yet-unrealized goal - would run on the odd
principles of quantum mechanics, in which the smallest particles
of light and matter can be in different places at the same time.
In a quantum computer, one quantum bit or "qubit" could be both 0
and 1 at the same time. That means quantum computers
theoretically could be billions of times faster than conventional
McCamey says a memory made of silicon "doped" with phosphorus
atoms could be used in both conventional electronic computers and
in quantum computers in which data is stored not by "on" or "off"
electrical charges, but by "up" or "down" magnetic spins in the
nuclei of phosphorus atoms.
Externally applied electric fields would be used to read and
process the data stored as "spins" - just what McCamey, Boehme
and colleagues did in their latest study. By demonstrating an
ability to read data stored in nuclear spins, the physicists took
a key step in linking spin to conventional electronics - a field
Spin is an unfamiliar concept to comprehend. A simplified way to
describe spin is to imagine that each particle - like an electron
or proton in an atom - contains a tiny bar magnet, like a compass
needle, that points either up or down to represent the particle's
spin. Down and up can represent 0 and 1 in a spin-based quantum
Boehme says the spins of atoms' nuclei are better for storing
information than the spin of electrons. That's because electron
spin orientations have short lifetimes because spins are easily
changed by nearby electrons and the temperature within atoms.
In contrast, "the nucleus sits in the middle of an atom and its
spin isn't messed with by what's going on in the clouds of
electrons around the nucleus," McCamey says. "Nuclei experience
nearly perfect solitude. That's why nuclei are a good place to
store information magnetically. Nuclear spins where we store
information have extremely long storage times before the
The average 112 second storage time in the new study may not seem
long, but Boehme says the dynamic random access memory (DRAM) in
a modern PC or laptop stores information for just milliseconds
(thousandths of a second). The information must be repeatedly
refreshed, which is how computer memory is maintained," he adds.
For the experiments, McCamey, Boehme and colleagues used a thin,
phosphorus-doped silicon wafer measuring 1 millimeter square, and
placed electrical contacts on it. The device was inside a
supercold container, and surrounded by intense magnetic fields.
Wires connected the device to a current source and an
oscilloscope to record data.
The physicists used powerful magnetic fields of 8.59 Tesla to
align the spins of phosphorus electrons. That's 200,000 times
stronger than Earth's magnetic field.
Then, pulses of near-terahertz electromagnetic waves were used to
"write" up or down spins onto electrons orbiting phosphorus
atoms. Next, FM-range radio waves were used to take the spin data
stored in the electrons and write it onto the phosphorus nuclei.
Later, other pulses of near-terahertz waves were used to transfer
the nuclear spin information back into the orbiting electrons,
and trigger the readout process. The readout is produced because
the electrons' spins are converted into variations in electrical
"We read the spin of the nuclei in the reverse of the way we
write information," Boehme says. "We have a mechanism that turns
electron spin into a current."
Summarizing the process, Boehme says, "We basically wrote 1 in
atoms' nuclei. We have shown we can write and read [spin data in
nuclei]," and shown that the information can be repeatedly read
from the nuclei for an average of 112 seconds before all the
phosphorus nuclei lose their spin information. In a much shorter
time, the physicists read and reread the same nuclear spin data
2,000 times, showing the act of reading the spin data doesn't
destroy it, making the memory reliable, Boehme says.
Reading out the data stored as spin involved reading the
collective spins of a large number of nuclei and electrons,
Boehme says. That will work for classical computers, but not for
quantum computers, for which readouts must be able to discern the
spins of single nuclei, he adds. Boehme hopes that can be
achieved within a few years.