Computer scientists dream of holographic memories that would pack libraries of digital data as 3-D arrays inside crystals. Lasers would retrieve the data in a flash: Today's fastest magnetic disk drives take hours to fetch 200 million bits--roughly 40 novels' worth. By contrast, Microelectronics & Computer Technology Corp. (MCC), a Texas consortium, is developing a system to do that in a second.
Thanks to a new, inexpensive plastic that can store holographic data, such memories are a tad closer to reality. The epoxy-based compound, discovered at IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif., is the first polymer to exhibit the "photorefractive effect." When laser beams cross inside the plastic, they alter the electrical properties of molecules in that area. This means data can be "planted" inside. A pinhead-size area, IBM says, can hold 100 million bits. But building a working memory with this polymer will require years of engineering. So don't look for pinheads in your library soon.