Sander Otte. Photo: Delft UniversityWhen Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press he changed the world.
Now a team of scientists in the Netherlands has taken this to the ultimate extreme. Through the manipulation of single atoms they have made the world’s smallest hard drive. It is so dense the technology could store all the world’s books on device the size of a postage stamp.
“It is as if we have invented the atomic-scale printing press,” lead researcher Sander Otte at Delft University told Gizmodo.
Using a scanning tunnelling microscope to push single atoms around, Associate Professor Otte’s team created a stable grid of 8000 chlorine atoms where each can represent the one (1) or zero (0) that make up binary digital data.
This means a storage density of 78 terabits per square centimetre, many hundreds of times greater than the best hard disks available.
IBM estimates that humanity is creating about 2.5 billion gigabytes of data a day – and that was in 2012. So the ability to store data efficiently is as a global challenge.
The researchers at Delft hope their research, published this week in Nature Technology, will be a step towards dealing with this data management conundrum.
“In theory, this storage density would allow all books ever created by humans to be written on a single post stamp,” Professor Otte said.
The next challenge is to scale the technology to commercially usable levels.
“In its current form the memory can operate only in very clean vacuum conditions and at liquid nitrogen temperature (-196.15 degrees), so the actual storage of data on an atomic scale is still some way off,” Associate Professor Otte said.
The ability to store data at such a small scale was predicted by Richard Feynman in 1959, in his seminal essay ‘There’s plenty of room at the bottom’.
Professor Feynman wrote: “But I am not afraid to consider the final question as to whether, ultimately – in the great future – we can arrange the atoms the way we want; the very atoms, all the way down! What would happen if we could arrange the atoms one by one the way we want them?”
In honour of this astounding foresight, the Delft University team encoded this very section of Feynman’s lecture in a grid 100 nanometres across, a hundredth the width of a human hair.
An excerpt from Richard Feynman’s lecture ‘There’s plenty of room at the bottom’ published on a 96 nanometre wide grid of chlorine atoms at Delft University. Photo: Delft University/Sander Otte
They achieve their result by laying chlorine atoms atop a layer of copper atoms, creating a stable grid. Whenever an atom is missing from the grid, a hole appears, allowing a on/off switch, or bit, to be created.
“You could compare it to a sliding puzzle,” Associate Professor Otte said. “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. If the chlorine atom is in the top position, there is a hole beneath it – we call this a 1. If the hole is in the top position and the chlorine atom is therefore on the bottom, then the bit is a 0.”
While the researchers have tipped their hat to Professor Feynman, its arguable that William Blake was an even earlier prophet of scaling data. Recall his poem Auguries of Innocence written in 1803.
“To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.”
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