Rubidium Vapor Stores Visual Images
April 4, 2013

Using Atoms To Store Visual Images

Lee Rannals for — Your Universe Online

Scientists have demonstrated how they are able to store visual images within a thin vapor of rubidium atoms.

Scientists at the Joint Quantum Institute (JQI) of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the University of Maryland reported in the New Journal of Physics about how they used the cloud of atoms as an optical memory device. The team believes their work could be helpful in creating memory for quantum computers.

The team's work builds on an approach developed at the Australian National University. This group of scientists showed that a rubidium vapor could be manipulated in different ways using magnetic fields and laser. In their method, the thin vapor is contained in a small tube and magnetized, and a laser pulse made up of multiple light frequencies is then fired through the tube. The energy level of each rubidium atom vapor becomes a fingerprint of the pulse's characteristics. If the field's orientation is flipped, another pulse fired through the vapor takes on the exact characteristics of the first one.

"With our paper, we've taken this same idea and applied it to storing an image–basically moving up from storing a single 'pixel' of light information to about a hundred," says Paul Lett, a physicist with JQI and NIST's Quantum Measurement Division. "By modifying their technique, we have been able to store a simple image in the vapor and extract pieces of it at different times."

[ Watch the Video: Animation of NIST Logo Stored Within Vapor ]

Because atoms in a vapor are always in motion, the image can be stored for about ten milliseconds. The modifications the team made to the original technique introduce too much noise into the laser signal to make the improvements practically useful. Lett said the whole point of their project was to learn more about how to create memory for next-generation quantum computers, not build a device for the market.

"What we've done here is store an image using classical physics. However, the ultimate goal is to store quantum information, which a quantum computer will need," he says. "Measuring what the rubidium atoms do as we manipulate them is teaching us how we might use them as quantum bits and what problems those bits might present. This way, when someone builds a solid-state system for a finished computer, we'll know how to handle them more effectively."

Lockheed Martin, a US-based aerospace and defense developer, is planning to become the first company in the world to use quantum computing technology. The technology will be able to complete complex calculations faster than current technology, helping to create and test radar, space and aircraft systems.