Forget The Cloud, New Device Stores Data In Atoms

Imagine all the information in the Library of Congress on a cube smaller than a grain of salt

Illustration: Diana Quach
Jul 18, 2016 at 11:00 AM ET

All the digital things we do take up storage space, and at the rate we’re going, there’s even risk that “the cloud” could fill up.

But there might be a solution. Scientists have made a big step toward a new, hyper-efficient way to store digital data: by writing it with atoms.

Hard drives big and small store digital data by magnetically encoding bits of memory onto a highly polished metal surface. For decades, researchers have been dreaming of something much more efficient—a technique that would code 0s and 1s with precisely positioned single atoms, allowing a tremendous amount of data to be stored in a much smaller physical space. Engineers from IBM first showcased the ability to precisely position individual atoms back in 1989, spending months painstakingly writing out the letters “IBM” in individual xenon atoms on nickel substrate. Since then, development of a usable atomic storage device has been incremental.

But now, researchers at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands have developed an atomic storage device that’s drastically more advanced than its predecessors, according to a study published on Monday in Nature Nanotechnology, a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

“Until recently, positioning individual atoms took months of labor. It required a lot of patience,” Sander Otte, a physicist at the Delft University of Technology and one of the study authors, told Vocativ. “Then all of a sudden we found the printing press of atomic manipulation.”

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Almost by accident, Otte and his collaborators discovered a combination of atomic elements that worked together better than anything that had come before it. Chlorine atoms bind to a copper base just strongly enough to stay put so that data can be stored reliably, but not so strongly that they can’t be moved when the memory needs to be overwritten. A scanning tunneling microscope (STM) uses a needle that’s just one atom thick at its tip to bounce an atom between it and the surface it’s scanning, creating images of the surface at the atomic level. For this device, the researchers used an STM to both see the surface and move the individual atoms.

In this recent study, researchers arranged chlorine atoms in a series of grids, bouncing them from one divot into another with the STM. In this system, the presence of a chlorine atom represents a 0 in binary code, and the lack of a chlorine atom represents a 1. Reading the column of each tiny grid from the top down, the researchers were able to spell out the words of a famous 1959 lecture on the future of nanotechnology by renowned physicist Richard Feynman, all in chlorine-encoded bits.

The result is the capacity to store data with unprecedented efficiency. “This density is two to three orders of magnitude beyond current hard disk or flash technology,” writes Steven Erwin, a materials researcher at the United States Naval Research Laboratory, in a commentary that accompanied Monday’s study. “An advance of this size is remarkable, to say the least.”

There are a few limitations that stand between this prototype and a readily available atomic storage device. Importantly, the device can only exist in a highly-controlled vacuum kept below -300 degrees Fahrenheit. While that’s actually not as limiting as it sounds, Otte says, lots of advanced machines have to be kept even colder, such as MRIs, and it’s doable if an atomic storage device is kept in a designated facility, not in your personal devices.

The other issue is that the storage device can only be read super slowly. Using the STM, it takes about an hour to read the kilobyte of data researchers programmed, and about as long to write data onto it, Otte says. “That’s ridiculously slow,” he adds. But there’s no physical limit to how fast it could go; Otte suspects that future gadgets could read or write on the storage device at about a megabit per second, the speed of a hard drive today. 

Otto and his team plan to test different materials to make the device stable at room temperature and speed up the reading and writing rate in order to scale up an atomic data storage device. But Otte is even more excited about what his team’s discovery could mean further in the future. Being able to manipulate the rules that govern some of the tiniest particles of matter could have huge implications for future technologies.

“I think we are here at the beginning of an era where we can do tech and engineering that leads to all kinds of new science that no one can conceive yet,” Otte says.