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.
Experimental Technology Stores a Kilobit of Data on a Single Atom
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.