We are a generation of impatient people. We want everything, at our fingertips, as of thirty seconds ago, without expending a lot of energy to get it done. It’s not that we’re lazy; it’s that we’re constantly looking for ways to make our lives more efficient. No one remembers random facts of knowledge any more when it’s that much faster to just ‘Google it’.
Storing and retrieving our data needs to follow the same vein; it needs to be fast and easy. There has been some research into making the process faster for us and one of the surprising tools used to achieve this is: lasers.
Not shooting-out-of-your-eyes lasers but lasers nonetheless. Read on about how this came about:
As we use more and more data every year, where will we have room to store it all? Our rapidly increasing demand for web apps, file sharing and social networking, among other services, relies on information storage in the “cloud” – always-on Internet-connected remote servers that store, manage and process data. This in turn has led to a pressing need for faster, smaller and more energy-efficient devices to perform those cloud tasks.
Two of the three key elements of cloud computing, microchips and communications connections, are getting ever faster, smaller and more efficient. My research activity has implications for the third: data storage on hard drives.
Computers process data, at its most fundamental level, in ones and zeroes. Hard disks store information by changing the local magnetization in a small region of the disk: its direction up or down corresponds to a “1” or “0” value in binary machine language.
The smaller the area of a disk needed to store a piece of information, the more information can be stored in a given space. A way to store information in a particularly tiny area is by taking advantage of the fact that individual electrons possess magnetization, which is called their spin. The research field of spin electronics, or “spintronics,” works on developing the ability to control the direction of electrons’ spins in a faster and more energy efficient way.
Shining light on magnets
I work to control electrons’ spins using extremely short laser pulses – one quadrillionth of a second in duration, or one “femtosecond.” Beyond just enabling smaller storage, lasers allow dramatically faster storage and retrieval of data. The speed comparison between today’s technology and femtosecond spintronics is like comparing the fastest bullet train on Earth to the speed of light.
In addition, if the all-optical method is used to store information in materials that are transparent to light, little or no heating occurs – a huge benefit given the economic and environmental costs presented by the need for massive data-center cooling systems.
Seriously, is that not cool or what? It’s good for the environment, helps with our increasingly real struggle of finding actual space for all our data. It’s a process that would obviously occur behind the scenes but you’d get to imagine the tiny lasers hard at work storing all your important data.
In the meantime, we’re still working with good ol’ platter and spindle and the fairly new SSD drives. Times are changing, but maybe not fast enough!