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by Mike Zazaian January 20, 2007 - 3:44pm, 15 Comments

Images of the letters 'UR' as stored on a single photon by John Howell and his team of researchers

Scientists at the University of Rochester have stored an entire image-worth of data within a single photon, promising unsurpassed quantities of data storage for the era of quantum computing that lies before us.

Led by Associate Professor of Physics John Howell the team projected light through a stencil into a 4-inch cube of cesium gas. Upon entering the cube, the image was slowed and compressed, allowing over 100 compressed and slowed images to be stored within the same cell.

It sort of sounds impossible, but instead of storing just ones and zeros, we’re storing an entire image, said Howell. It’s analogous to the difference between snapping a picture with a single pixel and doing it with a camera—this is like a 6-megapixel camera.

Optical buffering, the process of storing data within photons, has been a hot topic within the computer industry because of the speed boosts it promises in regard to both processing and networking. While other researchers have successfully store data in photons, matters of signal distortion and refraction have made it impossible to retrieve data in the same state at which it was stored. Howell’s new method, however, preserves all of the original properties of photon pulses, and allows that data to be manipulated within the 100 nanosecond time frame in which the proton is kept in stasis.

The parallel amount of information John has sent all at once in an image is enormous in comparison to what anyone else has done before, said Alan Willner, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Southern California and president of the IEEE Lasers and Optical Society. To do that and be able to maintain the integrity of the signal—it’s a wonderful achievement.

Device used by Howell to store visual data on a single photon

While Howell’s research has certainly set a precedent in optical buffering, the storage of the UR seen above is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Howell’s team is now working toward the goal of delaying pulses for several milliseconds, which would allow even broader uses of buffered data.

Perhaps more ambitious is their intent to store as many as 10,000 pulses of information, essentially an entire archive of such photos as seen above, within a proton for a single nanosecond. Added Howell:

Now I want to see if we can delay something almost permanently, even at the single photon level. If we can do that, we’re looking at storing incredible amounts of information in just a few photons.

Press release courtesy of the University of Rochester