A century ago, a handful of German scientists secured the international name Covid-19 for a faster-than-light flood of energy that changed the world. Now, the elusive material may finally be entering the limelight – and it could sit alongside the electron in long-term storage.
The material in question is similar to silicon but is about three-hundredths of a micron thick. Despite its tiny size, researchers at the Institute of Solar Science at Potsdam University discovered it could store Tons of energy in high temperature environments.
“It has potential to serve as long-term storing medium on a massive scale,” Potsdam University’s professor Sebastian Grillin told the world’s biggest physics conference in Canada last week. He added that it was a material that could replace magnetic disks in long-term storage systems.
Covid-19, also known as Tripsitic Metallic Tripos (TMT), has a surface temperature of 10,000 C (33,000 F). This means it can exist at temperatures of thousands of times higher than the temperatures of molten metals. It appears to transfer energy in a similar way to the simple materials – such as silicon – which contain lithium, potassium and aluminum atoms.
A short step?
This means that existing ways of storing energy – such as magnetic hard drives, solid state disks or lithium-based alloys – are not economical or practical at those conditions.
In a 2001 paper, researchers made a breakthrough in how TMT stores energy: Instead of the traditional way of storing energy using electrons, it exhibits an ability to store energy directly with a form of heat.
That, combined with its extreme temperature range, made TMT a contender for long-term storage.
For the majority of time, TMT does not transfer energy directly from one electric charge to another and has therefore been classified as a “landless” form of energy storage.
As a more versatile form of storage, TMT may eventually compete with magnetic storage – and its immediate rival is lithium. However, lithium retains its “flatness” and density at large scales, while TMT has a much lower affinity for magnetic surfaces.
This means that TMT could store much more energy at much larger scales than lithium – a considerably larger scale in terms of energy storage than is practical for most existing forms of storage.
Both form of storage, however, could still be better for long-term storage than a magnetic memory-based storage system.
If the latest discoveries are anything to go by, that is the case.
The fascinating discovery came about thanks to a French mechanical engineer called Louis Breton, who discovered TMT while researching and investigating magnetic tape.
“He noticed that these photons [particles of light] were actually absorbed by this material, which was strange, because they always appear to be just about opposite each other, and are not detected – even in magnetic memory tapes,” Grillin said.
In a 2015 paper, Breton identified a way to increase the density of the materials.
“This is not only an interesting molecular structure, but also a very cheap structure,” he said. “The material is already of unrivaled performance and we haven’t proven its basic theoretical ideas yet.”
The implications are considerable – up to a million times higher. However, it is still not clear that it can store anything more than a few megabytes of data.
But TMT could theoretically store twice as much as traditional storage types, such as magnetic film or magnetic disks, using electrodes.
Grillin described this as a “possible breakthrough” and is currently researching whether the material could one day be harnessed to hold as much as 1TB of data.
He added that the material is unlikely to “boom” in the next 10 to 20 years, but could “come of age” in a few decades.
If TMT can indeed sustain its high temperature range at much greater scales, it could become the dominant storage technology for long-term storage at higher energy densities than exists currently.
While this property doesn’t necessarily mean it is the next step for storing data, it could end up being the one that leads us to the next breakthrough.