Researchers create microscopic data storage system

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Chlorine atoms on copper surface
Chlorine atoms placed on a copper surface. Image: Sander Otte et al., 2016/Nature Nanoscience

A team of researchers in the Netherlands has developed a microscopic storage system that allows data encoding at the atomic level.

Led by Sander Otte, a scientist at the Delft University of Technology, the team proved the possibility to fit a kilobyte of data in a space as wide as 100 nanometers after successfully encoding an entire paragraph of text. The data amounted to 1 kilobyte, a storage density of about 500 terabits for every square inch.

Otte explained that, “every bit consists of two positions on a surface of copper atoms, and one chlorine atom that we can slide back and forth between these two positions.”

Chlorine atoms were put on a surface of copper to form a perfect square grid. The resulting structure allowed them to slide the atom within each pair, thus enabling them to write and even rewrite the memory.

Working on something at the atomic level was possible using the probe of a scanning tunneling microscope (STM), an essential instrument for imaging surfaces. This equipment is the same type of machine used by the IBM experiment 26 years ago.

Otte explained that “In theory, this storage density would allow all books ever created by humans to be written on a single post stamp.”

However, he admitted that the storage array is not exactly accurate but serves its purpose – to get the point across.

The process was conducted under a -196ºC temperature through liquid-nitrogen cooling, a cheaper alternative to liquid helium used by IBM in their experiment. This is perhaps one of the drawbacks that they need to overcome – the atoms cannot yet be made stable at room temperature.

Another problem is the time it takes to complete the process which is currently reported at 1-2 minutes per block, a thousand times slower compared to the speed of modern hard drives.

If the problems could hopefully be addressed in the near future, such high-density storage system would someday revolutionize the memory capacity of common gadgets such as smartphones and personal computers.