There is a limit to the computing power that can be built into devices. The famous Moore’s law states that the numbers of transistors that can be implemented into memory chips can double after every two years. However, there are physical barriers which prevent technology from being miniaturized continuously. However, researchers may have found a way to overcome this problem. They have started using individual atoms to aid in increasing data storage capacity.

Chlorine, liquefied

A team at the Delft University of Technology, Netherlands, has developed a data storage device with a rewritable space of 1 kilobyte. This device uses chlorine atoms which have been arranged on a tiny metal surface. If that surface was expanded to an area of just 1sq.cm, then it could store approximately 10TB of information. According to Sander Otte, lead study author and physicist at the university, this is the biggest assembly to be ever created on an atomic scale. Of course, it is exponentially better than the best hard drives in the market when it comes to data capacity.

How Does the Technology Work?

The technology is made possible by rearranging individual atoms quickly and reliably. This technique is already known to science, having been first demonstrated in 1990. In that demonstration, scientists arranged xenon atoms to spell IBM. This concept has been further refined by the team at Delft.

In their technique, chlorine atoms were arranged on a copper surface into square grids which were then placed beside each other. Each of these grids contains a few empty holes which allow the atoms to be moved around. It is similar to how a tile puzzle functions. Each line on each grid represents a single byte.

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A scanning tunneling microscope that contains a sharp needle is used to move the atoms into the spaces near them. A single bit is made by an empty space and a chlorine atom. By moving the chlorine atoms from one empty space to another, the scientists can switch between one and zero, the basis of binary code, which is used everywhere in computing.

A scanning tunneling microscope at work.

A scanning tunneling microscope at work.

The Problems with the Technology

While this technology is certainly incredible, it suffers from one major problem. The device has to be stored at a temperature of –196°C which is the boiling point of liquid nitrogen. On the other hand, it is warmer than liquid helium making it a cheaper proposition than using the latter as a coolant.

Of course, this device is only a proof of concept as it demonstrates that this technique can be used for storing data by manipulating atoms. If the technology could be scaled up into bigger structures and the grids arranged in 3D, it becomes possible to file hundreds of terabytes of data into a cube whose size is that of a grain of salt. That amount of data is equal to the entire US Library of Congress. Improvements can also be useful in the field of cloud storage as it can decrease the need for new data centers.

However, some believe that data storage is just one of the things possible with this technique. It may even end up helping in the development of new materials.

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