In case you’re wondering, what you’re looking at is a silicon chip, only 1 millimeter square that was used by researchers to prove how data can be stored in the magnetic spin of atoms – and how it can then be accessed electronically. Physicists from the University of Utah have managed to store information in the magnetic spin of a phosphorus atom, which is a major step in developing new types of memory for both traditional and quantum computers.

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“The length of spin memory we observed is more than adequate to create memories for computers,” says Christoph Boehme (pronounced Boo-meh), 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.”

The technical difficulties they had to face were huge; the apparatus they used only works at 3.2 Kelvin grades, which is just slightly above absolute zero – the temperature at which all atoms reach a standstill ! Also, it had to be surrounded by an electric field roughly 200.000 greater than that of the Earth.

“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.