Physicists Store ‘Atomic Movie’ in a Cloud of Vapor, and Play It Back

As Moore’s Law continues its march, there’s the ever-present threat of stuff getting too small to get any smaller. It might be time to tally another one against Moore: Scientists are taking the next logical step and storing images in atomic vapor.

Not one image, actually, but two, making the successful experiment the first example of an “atomic film” — although with just two images it’s closer to an atomic flipbook. During the process, a mask with an outline of the image to be transmitted is encoded by a laser onto a field of rubidium atoms. A magnetic field locks the atoms (and information) into place; they’re released when the field is switched back off. From there, a high-speed camera snaps a picture of each image.

There are, of course, some issues to deal with right now. Photo quality is still a little low, with only 8 percent of the light sent into the apparatus converted back to a readable image. It’s not long-term storage, either, since after just 20 microseconds a letter of the alphabet already begins to diffuse into a blurry white mess.

That organizational breakthrough between one image and two seems like the most important part of this: Once you have two pieces of information, you can have more and more until it builds into something substantial. Those involved with the project are hoping it hastens us toward a quantum network/internet, probably good for sending animated atomic .gifs across long distances.