Researches Solve Century-old Physics Question, may Improve Data Storage

Twilight scene of the Rolex Learning Center on EPFL campus on May 23, 2011 in Lausanne, Switzerland. Designed by Sanaa architect group, the building was completed in 2010 and functions as a library. | Mihai-Bogdan Lazar |

Researchers have snubbed their nose at a fundamental law of physics, relegating a 100-year-old physics question to the history books. How could this development improve how we store and transfer energy?

If I know one thing about science, it’s that scientists are capable of amazing things, but they rarely like to settle for just amazing. Case in point, researchers at the EPFL (École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne) Bionanophotonic Systems Laboratory have been hard at work challenging a fundamental law of physics, and the results of their experimentation may have virtually limitless potential applications for data, energy, and light.

Now, I don’t know about you, but when I see language like “limitless potential” thrown about, my interest is piqued, to say the least.

For about 100 years we have benefitted from an understanding of energy that has allowed us to store it as electromagnetic waves and release it at a time of our choosing.

These resonant or wave-guiding systems are an important discovery in the history of the telecommunications industry and the field of physics, but for a long time they had a limitation concerning the storage time and bandwidth of the system; Increase one, and the other suffers, according to the last 100 years of research.

Which brings us back to the EPFL, where they have put that limitation to rest using modern materials and perhaps just a little bit of boldness.

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Fixing a 100-Year-old Misconception

The last big advancement for resonant and wave-guiding systems came in 1914 when K.S. Johnson discovered the limitation for those systems that I mentioned earlier, which he called the Q factor.

And for a while, the Q factor was considered common sense in the scientific community, and nobody challenged it. I can’t blame them, though, because the Q factor made things like lasers, electronic circuits, and advanced medical equipment possible.

What the EPFL’s team has going for it, though, is the benefit of modern materials and a century’s worth of advancements in the field of physics, so it seems that these systems are due for an upgrade.

The team, led by Kosmas Tsakmakidis, have come up with a hybrid resonant/wave-guiding system that utilizes a magneto-optic material that can stop a wave of energy and store it for a prolonged period with a magnetic field.

The trick, apparently, was to make an asymmetric resonant/wave-guiding system using that field, and it paid off in a big way.

Their system breaks the Q factor, beating the conventional time-bandwidth limit by a factor of 1,000, which sounds to me like they may be able to scale these systems up for use in all kinds of modern technologies.

According to Hatice Altug, a member of the research team, “Their superior wave-storage capacity performance could really be an enabler for a range of exciting applications in diverse contemporary and more traditional fields of research.”

But what kinds of technologies will benefit from this research? Well, the system basically traps different forms of energy, which makes me think of three big benefactors: data, power, and fiber-optics.

Playing With Unlimited Possibilities

The system has a lot of potential, and the field of data storage and transferral arguably benefit the most from it. Storage quality isn’t limited anymore, so it is possible to store large bandwidths of data for longer periods of time without any drop in quality.

In practical terms, it would make large masses of data easier to process, which is important for data science because it enables data-hungry neural networks to become smarter, more complex, and possibly even faster.

The system could also be useful for broadband energy storage and transfer, and with any luck, we’ll see existing energy infrastructures improved to be more efficient across the world. With less power lost during the transfer of power from one point to another, we may even see improvements in renewable energy sources, making them a more attractive alternative to existing energy solutions.

For the telecommunication industry, this development could come in the form of an all-optical buffer that can store data in the form of light and send it through a fiber-optic cable, so we may be getting better reception when we call friends from around the world.

For that matter, medical technologies use wave-guided systems too, so doctors could benefit from things like on-chip spectroscopy.

Of course, my personal favorite application is based on the system’s ability to store light waves. By storing incoming light, it may be possible to create optic camouflage material; better known as an invisibility cloak. Harry Potter, eat your heart out.

But this system is still in the experimental phase, so we’re going to have to stay on the edge of our seat to see if it’s scalable enough for the world to make good use of it. When that happens, though, don’t be surprised if we’re here telling you all about it, because we’re keeping our eye on this one.

After all, I really, really want an invisibility cloak.

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