Scientists of the U.S. University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley) have observed for the first time an exotic property of a synthetically layered material that makes possible a new form of data storage in the future, UC Berkeley said in a statement Monday.
The researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) used spiraling X-rays to discover the property that gives handedness to swirling electric patterns, or polar vortices, in the layered material.
The property, which is better known as chirality, opens up the potential for finding a new way to store data by controlling the left- or right-handedness in the material's array, much the same way as data are magnetically stored in a computer's memory.
The findings of the study by the UC Berkeley scientists were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday.
The researchers said the behavior of the layered material could also be explored for coupling to magnetic or optical (light-based) devices, which could allow better control via electrical switching.
Chirality is present in many forms and at many scales, from the DNA's spiral-staircase design to the spin and drift of spiral galaxies.
The researchers' experiments, which can distinguish between left-handed chirality and right-handed chirality in the samples' vortices, offer "new opportunities for fundamentally new science, with the potential to open up applications," said Elke Arenholz, a senior staff scientist at Berkeley Lab's Advanced Light Source.
The samples included a layer of lead titanate (PbTiO3) and a layer of strontium titanate (SrTiO3) sandwiched together in an alternating pattern to form a material known as a superlattice. ( The two compounds, which show no handedness by themselves, were observed to develop the swirling vortex structures that exhibited chirality when they were combined into the precisely layered superlattice.
The property of chirality has an additional functionality when compared with devices using magnetic fields to rearrange the magnetic structure of the material.
Both left-handed and right-handed chirality in the samples could be measured with the help of spiraling forms of X-rays, known as circularly polarized X-rays.
"Since we know so much about magnetic structures, we could think of using this well-known connection with magnetism to implement this newly discovered property into devices," Arenholz said.
Founded in 1931, Berkeley Lab is managed by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.