Advances in the speed of computer hardware have been accompanied by massive increases in the amount of memory which the faster processors can handle. While these advances enable systems to process larger and more detailed sets of data ranging from scientific analysis to website content to online gaming to streaming video, the vast amount of information needs to be stored for access, and that takes a considerable amount of electrical power.
In a research project funded through the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) organization, several Michigan State University researchers led by Physics & Astronomy Professor Norman Birge, along with scientists from Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation, recently developed a superconducting magnetic memory element that has greatly reduced heat generation and power consumption compared to conventional alternatives. The study was recently published in Nature Physics.
Data centers are among the largest and fastest growing consumers of electrical power in the United States and many other areas of the globe. In the U.S., they consumed an estimated 91 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity in 2013 and are likely to reach 140 billion kWh by 2020. At the rate that computational capabilities are increasing, IARPA has projected that they will outstrip any reasonable electrical production method within decades if more efficient memory technologies cannot be developed.
Professor Birge's group, in conjunction with Northrop Grumman physicists Eric C. Gingrich (who had at one time worked with Dr. Birge while getting his Ph.D. in Physics here at MSU) and Don Miller, have developed prototype superconducting devices which can be set to display a behavior analogous to standard computer memory's differentiation between ones and zeroes. Because superconducting circuits use very little power, they make more efficient use of the power they receive, even taking into account the power needed to keep them cooled to the low temperatures needed for the superconductivity to take effect.
Other members of the MSU research team were Bethany Niedzielski, Joseph A. Glick, Yixing Wang, Reza Loloee and William P. Pratt, Jr.
For further information, see this College of Natural Science news article or this MSU Today article, or for the most detail, this press release (in PDF format) from Prof. Birge's group.
The photo at the top of the page shows the high-vacuum sputtering system used in the project along with research team members, from left to right, Professor Norman Birge, graduate students Bethany Niedzielski and Joseph Glick, and Scientific Instrument Facilities Coördinator Dr. Reza Loloee.