Experimental Technology Stores a Kilobit of Data on a Single Atom

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2016-07-19 Print this article Print
Atom Storage

The challenge to create atomic storage came from the legendary physicist Dr. Richard Feynman, who delivered it in a lecture in 1959 during the American Physical Society meeting that year at the California Institute of Technology.

In his lecture, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” Dr. Feynman challenged the other physicists in the room to start working on machines the size of atoms. This led to the creation over the years of various atom-sized projects, including the atomic memory created at Delft University.

Because of Dr. Feynman’s influence, the researchers demonstrated how atomic memory would work by creating a matrix using the transcript of the lecture as the content. If you look really hard, you can see it in the image at the top of this article. But a better view of it can be seen in the image published by the folks at Delft University.

While this atomic memory is real and does allow the saving and reading of information at this small scale, it’s not really ready to be used in your data center. Two big reasons stand in the way of making this a practical commercial technology.

First is the fact that the copper–chlorine matrix has to be exceptionally clean, since contaminants can block the reading process. The second is that the matrix needs to be kept very cold. While the scientists are looking for ways to use this memory at more normal temperatures, right now it works at 70 degrees above absolute zero.

Still, the requirements for very clean, very cold condition for this technology to work won't stop researchers from studying ways to make it more practical to meet the constantly expanding demands for data storage capacity.

What likely will happen is that large, operational, cold clean rooms will start operations in much the same way that clean facilities exist at chip makers worldwide. Initially it won’t be cheap, but it’s not impossible.

It’s worth noting also that it’s not the ultimate bottom, even though Feynman may have thought so at the time. There’s already a series of efforts to impart specific spin numbers on to individual electrons. Once an electron is set to spin (a convenient term, but it doesn’t actually mean the electron is rotating on an axis) at a specific rate, it remembers it. Once an electron remembers the spin, it can be used as memory to store data.

I’ve observed one such experiment, and if nothing else it illustrated just how weird the world of quantum particles is. Remember, the spin of an electron doesn’t mean what you probably think it does. An electron, after all, doesn’t exist as an object in the normal sense, but rather in more of a statistical likelihood. And spin doesn’t mean rotation, but rather a set of measurable qualities.

But if all of this works out, the next level of storage may exist by imprinting an identifiable means of reading the characteristics of an electron or other subatomic particle. And that will make memory really, really small.

Dr. Otte and his team published their findings in the July 18 issue of Nature Nanotechnology.


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