C&B Notes

Tiny Memory

Richard Feynman imagined atomic-scale memory in the late 1950’s, and a recent breakthrough promises that this idea is coming closer to reality.  While this particular solution will have to become much faster to be practical, this kind of progress will eventually drive down the cost of memory to almost zero and will fundamentally alter a number of industries.

By manipulating the interactions between individual atoms, scientists report they have created a device that can pack hundreds of times more information per square inch than the best currently available data-storage technologies.  The working prototype is part of a decades-long attempt to shrink electronics down to the atomic level, a feat scientists believe would allow them to store information much more efficiently, in less space and more cheaply.  By comparison, tech companies today build warehouse-sized data centers to store the billions of photos, videos and posts consumers upload to the internet daily.  Corporations including International Business Machines Corp. and Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co. also have explored research to reduce such space needs.  The so-called atomic-scale memory, described in a paper published on Monday in the scientific journal Nature Nanotechnology, can hold one kilobyte, the equivalent of roughly a paragraph of text…

Most previous attempts at encoding information with atoms, including his own, managed roughly one byte, Dr. Himpsel said.  And data could be stored only once.  To store new information, the “disk” had to be re-formatted, like CD-Rs popular in the ’90s.  With the new device, “we can rewrite it as often as we like,” said Sander Otte, an experimental physicist at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and the lead author on the new paper…

To build their prototype, the scientists peppered a flat copper bed with about 60,000 chlorine atoms scattered at random, purposely leaving roughly 8,000 empty spaces among them.  A mapping algorithm guided the tiny, copper-coated tip of a high-tech microscope to gently pull each chlorine atom to a predetermined location, creating a precise arrangement of atoms and neighboring “holes.”  The team also crafted a language for their device.  The stored information is encoded in the patterns of holes between atoms.  The atom-tugging needle reads them as ones and zeros, turning them into regular binary code.  The researchers marked up the grid with instructions that cued the software where it should direct the needle to write and read data.  For instance, a three-hole diagonal line marked the end of a file.  “That’s what I really love in this work,” said Elke Scheer, a nanoscientist at the University of Konstanz in Germany not involved with the study.  “It’s not just physics.   It’s also informatics.”

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Reading the stored data is much too slow to have practical applications soon.  Plus, the device is stable for only a few hours at extremely low temperatures.  To be competitive with today’s hard drives, the memory would have to persist for years and work in warmer temperatures, said Victor Zhirnov, chief scientist at the Semiconductor Research Corp., a research consortium based in Durham, N.C.