Experimental Technology Stores a Kilobit of Data on a Single Atom

NEWS ANALYSIS: Researchers in the Netherlands have discovered how to put binary data on a stable matrix of atoms so a kilobit of data can be stored on a single atom.  

Atom Storage 2

Long ago in another life, I was taken into a laboratory run by the Department of Defense to see the future of data processing, which is what IT was called back then.

Inside a room in that lab was a device that looked something like a washing machine. My guide said that I should be impressed, and speaking in hushed tones, he said, “This holds 5 megabytes!”

Things have changed enormously since then, but probably not as much as they’re going to change. Right now the future of storage is in the Kevli Institute of Nanoscience at Delft University in the Netherlands.

There, researchers led by Dr. Sander Otte created a matrix of chlorine atoms that surround copper atoms. They then manipulated the individual atoms into specific arrangements of atoms and spaces where there isn’t an atom, called holes.

Once in place, the chlorine atoms and holes are stable since they’re held in place by the other atoms around them. The researchers arranged the atoms into blocks of 8 bytes set off by markers of the same atoms arranged in a specific sequence.

According to the announcement by Delft University, the matrix of atoms and holes resembles the blocks in a QR (Quick Response) code used today in matrix barcodes. Or, at least that is the way it works in concept.

But, of course, there are differences. While a QR code is scanned using a camera or similar optical device, the atoms and holes are scanned by using the needle of a scanning tunneling microscope. The same needle is used to manipulate the atoms in the matrix so they can hold the encoded data.

According to a press release from Delft University of Technology, this process of using atoms for storage results in a density of 500Tbits per square inch. “You could compare it to a sliding puzzle,” Otte explains in the release.

“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.”

This is a lot of storage. “In theory, this storage density would allow all books ever created by humans to be written on a single post stamp.” Dr. Otte explains. While this isn’t quite the same as creating infinite amounts of storage, the fact remains that it will go a long way toward holding all of the data created by human activities every day.

How much data is that? Some estimates put the amount of data created daily at a billion gigabytes, which is a million terabytes. That would fit on to 2,000 square inches of that copper-chlorine matrix. That’s less than two square yards of storage per day. It will still build up, but not at the rate of storage currently which is approximately 500 times less dense than the atomic storage developed at Delft University.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...