Breaking the computational speed limit

Pretty much all things computer-driven operate using circuits made of silicon-based technologies. Those systems use a complex combination of “1’s and 0’s” to both represent data and to make decisions. Computers, at their core, can actually perform only very few functions: they can add, subtract, multiply, divide, and compare. Virtually every function a computer performs is some combination of those 5 things. To actually store the state of a specific bit of data – the 1 or the 0 I mentioned above – requires that the electrical/magnetic state of some medium be changed. In today’s systems we use silicon and electrical current to do this.

A recent experiment made use of magnetite and managed to increase the speed at which the data storage can actually occur:

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory reported that magnetite, a naturally magnetic mineral — the most magnetic of all the minerals on Earth — was found to have the fastest-possible electrical switching time. Electrical switching, or moving a “switch” from a non-conductive state to a conductive one, is the process that makes our current electrical circuits.

The team of scientists used SLAC’s Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) X-ray laser and found that that it takes only 1 trillionth of a second – thousands of time faster than current transistors – to flip the on-off electrical switch in samples of magnetite.

Computer systems that use lasers and fiber-optics instead of copper pathways have been explored, too, in the attempt to increase the speed of computing inside the individual laptop or desktop. By working on the storage and computational components and increasing the speed at which they, too, can work the speed of the overall system can be increased. If the systems can be made portable enough, then the possibility of applications that take too long to rely upon in real-time might possibly see greater use.