Even the most outlandish Master of the Key predictions seem to come true, including one of the most peculiar – that computer memory can be stored in a gas – which now has powerful new scientific support.

The intriguing discovery was made by a team of physicists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), whose quest was originally to turn a cloud of ultracold atoms known as a Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC) into a completely new kind of circuit element.

According to the team leader Gretchen Campbell, the findings, featured as the cover article of the Feb. 12, 2014, issue of Nature, illustrate that the cloud was able to display a sort of "memory", opening up the potential for a multitude of new gadgets in the field of "atomtronics," a rapidly developing area that is offering an alternative to conventional electronics.

The abstract from the research paper describes the field of atomtronics as "an emerging interdisciplinary field that seeks to develop new functional methods by creating devices and circuits where ultracold atoms, often superfluids, have a role analogous to that of electrons in electronics."

BECS are useful tools in the field of atomtronics; they are extra-ordinary forms of matter able to display "superfluidity," that is, flow without resistance. In the recent study, the team looked at ways to rotate BECs, a property that could prove to be useful in paving the way for more sensitive rotation sensors. Atomtronic circuits could be useful in this type of application, occupying the same role that gyroscopes play in spacecraft and aeroplane navigatio, and maybe someday in the future they could be made to perform rudimentary quantum computations.

The physicists created a BEC from 400,000 sodium atoms suspended by laser beams, generating a tiny wheel-shaped cloud of atoms the width of a strand of hair. Using another laser to spin the "wheel" or stir it like a spoon, the scientists observed some interesting and unexpected behavior in the BEC.

"A stirred BEC flows only at certain velocities—starting with the spoon at rest, as one stirs more rapidly, the BEC initially stays at rest, then suddenly, at a ‘critical’ stirring rate, starts to flow," says Campbell, a NIST physicist. "Curiously, the stirring rate at which the BEC jumps into motion is not the same as the stirring rate to get the BEC to jump back to rest; in some cases, one even has to stir backwards."

In the same way that electronic devices control the flow of electrons, atomtronic devices control the flow of atoms, but the two devices have very different properties, with atomtronic devices having the potential to far outstrip the capabilities of electronic devices. Superfluidity in atoms is analogous to the way electrons flow without resistance in a superconductor, so studying the transitions in atomtronics could drive theoretical work in superconductivity.

A practical application for such new devices is still a way off, but team leader Campbell is hopeful that they will find their place:

“We’re still in the infancy of learning how to control our systems and what we can do. But that is our hope,” she said.

The new technology is similar to that which already exists in a magnetic hard drive disk, where the magnetic field required to change a memory bit depends on whether you are changing a zero to a one or vice versa. This effect, known as "hysteresis," is what keeps the hard drive stable and allows it to store computer data. Theoretically, the same type of information could be stored in the flow state of an atomtronic circuit, with the BEC system having the advantage that the stability of the hysteresis could be adjusted by changing the properties of the laser "spoon."

"Nevertheless, the demonstration of hysteresis in an atomtronic device opens up lots of possibilities," Campbell says. "It might now be possible to make a host of atomtronic devices such as switches, more sensitive gyroscopes or maybe even a different type of a quantum computer."

So, another Master of the Key prediction comes to fruition, providing yet another validation for the exchange of information between Whitley Strieber and his enigmatic visitor. Read the The Key by Whitley Strieber to learn more.

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