A new discovery at the University of Basel in Switzerland could mean huge advances in the world of electromechanical systems and computing, ushering in a brave new world of digital revolution. In the first-ever successful manipulation of atoms at room temperature, scientists symbolically arranged 20 single bromine atoms into the shape of a Swiss Cross. If you're shrugging and wondering what the hell it's all about (the entire structure only measured 5.6 nanometers), the infinite possibilities of this tiny symbol should make you pause.
Manipulating Matter: How Atoms Are Moved
Scientists have been manipulating atoms since the 90's via atomic force microscopes, but these experiments were always performed on conducting or semi-conducting surfaces, and always at temperatures far lower than could be replicated in a common setting. The University of Basel's team succeeded in their efforts by using a sodium chloride surface; individual bromine atoms were placed and reacted by exchanging themselves with individual chloride atoms (chlorine is the more reactive of the two elements; both are halogens, which are used in combination with salts to test atom replacement theories).
This discovery opens doors in the field of atomic-scale data storage, which could vastly expand upon the relative constraints of current methods by adding more storage density and reducing (or eliminating) the need for moving parts. This is key to the new frontier—quantum computing. A mind-bending pursuit, these explorations involve theories like superposition (the theory that parts can simultaneously exist in several states at once) and entanglement (that these multi-state parts can link together and interact) be applied to data. Rather than the binary functions of current computers—limiting to 0's and 1's—quantum computing would employ qubits or quantum bits, which can be superimposed into innumerable states—and exponentially more uses. While individual qubits have been successfully created, they are incredibly fragile, and creating the exponentially higher number needed to build a quantum computer is still a tall mountain to climb.
Why this Matters
More powerful computers would have a ripple effect through every field from studying climate change to artificial intelligence and the financial sector. Microsoft is putting a sizable chunk of resources into this research, and met in June to delve into a new theory involving "braiding" anyons—quasi-particles which may or may not exist in two out of three dimensions . . . don't worry, our heads are tilted too.
What does the next step of atomic engineering look like? The road to digital Eden is paved with choices, and the massive computing power we are attempting to unlock could make for some tough calls (Jeff Bridges fighting his evil engineered—and awfully CGI constructed—twin, anyone?). The future of electronic evolution is perhaps the most important door civilization is cracking open; now if we would pay half as much attention to it as we would to that goddamn Bachelor show.