While Birge cautiously emphasizes that this technology is still in the developmental stage, its success several years down the road could increase computer memory 300-fold, succeeding the silicon chip as the optimal storage medium. The significance of this advance has not gone unnoticedTime Digitalnamed Birge to its top 50 Cyber Elite list in 1997. Birge's key patent, issued last year, is for a branched photocycle optical memory device, in which a laser-activated process triggers the protein through a series of states, including one state that has a long lifetime and is capable of storing data. A follow-up patent, currently pending, focuses on optimizing a modified version of the protein for the application. "As far as I know, we are the only researchers aggressively pursuing the three-dimensional protein memory," says Birge, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry in The College of Arts and Sciences, who serves as director of the W.M. Keck Center for Molecular Electronics and research director of the Computer Applications and Software Engineering (CASE) Center.|
Birge credits a group of creative graduate students who've worked with him through the years in advancing the technology. "I let them loose and see what they develop," he says. "They've been very successful at making devices, and the most important device they're working on now is the 3-D memory."
One of those doctoral students, Jeff Stuart G'98, is director of the Advanced Prototyping Laboratory at the Keck Center. "Our goal is to understand the protein and use its unique properties to create a commercially viable product," says Stuart, a biochemist. "Dr. Birge's design represents the culmination of a lot of research by different scientists, but he's the one who figured out how to use bR as a memory medium in three dimensions."
In the lab Stuart points to a prototype, complete with lasers, on a tabletop. He explains the branched photocycle, which represents changes in the protein as it's hit with lasers of varying intensity. The whole sequencefrom the initial resting state through stages where information is written and storedhappens in a flash: 10 milliseconds. "It's really quite an elegant process," Stuart says. "There are many potential applications for this protein in the way it interacts with light. It's also great to be involved in such a project. Many scientists never get to work on a project as exciting as this."
Down the road, the rugged little protein may get a workout in parallel-processing computing and even associative memory, based on bR's holographic properties. Like many new technologies, it spawned a start-up company based at the CASE Center that acquired a license to some of the technology. While Birge remains focused on the research, he isn't interested in becoming a high-tech entrepreneur. "In about two years, we'll know whether this technology is going to fly. If it looks like it's really going to take off, a large company may have to come in and buy the technology and pursue it," he says. "I have no interest in the commercialization of this technology beyond what we can do in the lab."
Chaiken, Birge's Keck Center colleague, takes a different approach, enjoying a mix of research and entrepreneurship. "The need for memory is insatiable," he says. If his vision pans out, a new high-capacity storage device he's developing could be introduced in a couple of years to a targeted market. Sitting in his office early one Monday morning, he flashes a blue laser beam against the wall. "There haven't really been any blue lasers this small until now," says Chaiken, who launched Laser Chemical Corporation to commercialize the technology. "And they're needed to produce new drives and other products."
The blue laserwhich is also of interest to Birge's team for use in the erasing processis produced by Nanolambda Corporation, an upstate New York company that is collaborating with Chaiken's Laser Chemical Corporation to make prototype drives. The laser is a component in a Photochromic Optical Memory System (POMS) created by Chaiken and scientist Joseph Osman of the Air Force Research Laboratory in Rome, New York. They developed POMS out of their patented data storage process. By switching between blue and infrared lasers on a layer of tungsten-oxidefor which Chaiken has a separate patentdata can be written, stored, and erased. Basically, the interaction with the lasers alters the material's color, thus distinguishing between written and unwritten spots. Chaiken, who also holds a patent relating to transparent metal films, says the key to the system is its ability to store large volumes of information. "We're shooting for a capacity of at least 2,000 gigabytes on a single slab (1 foot by 2 feet by 1/2 inch)," he says. "Everybody is going for density these days, but what's important is capacity, in my opinion and reading of the market. The POMS technical advantage derives from the fact that other media, i.e., magneto-optic, phase change (DVD), and conventional magnetic material, can't be manufactured in such large pieces."|
Rather than fumbling with zip drives or dozens of disks, he wants to store huge amounts of information in one place. "We hope to get away from the round spinning disk paradigm and use simple rectilinear motion instead. The whole paradigm will be different," he says. "Our first generation product will be simply recordable, and on the second generation we'll introduce erasability."
Chaiken, of course, doesn't plan on burying the CD-ROM or floppy disk markets. Instead, he's after a niche market, envisioning such customers as government agencies and hospitalsany place that files away warehouses of information and can benefit from replacing filing cabinets with an easily searched high-capacity medium. "Just as the
transportation market supports many types of products and models, you're going to look out on the parking lot of storage devices and see lots of different ones. There's plenty of room in the market for them, and I wish them luck because I'll want those other products for my own applications. But when you want a lot of capacity on a single volume, very often you'll want to come to us instead of using magnetic tape," he says. "We're trying to produce prototypes of a product that could be on the market as soon as possible to get a good grip on the particular market share we're targeting."
courtesy of robert birge
Professor Robert Birge is developing a three- dimensional computer memory using the light- absorbing protein bacteriorhodopsin packaged in a cuvette.