Scientists in the Netherlands have created the world’s smallest hard disk by inventing a breakthrough system capable of writing bits of information onto a single atom.
What that means is potentially groundbreaking in a world of ever-expanding needs for storage. The team at the Technical University of Delft, led by Sander Otte have created a truly mind-blowing 500TB disk that is just one-square-inch!
So how on Earth does it work?
Well, each bit of data is stored in the position of individual chlorine atoms on the copper surface of the chip – at just 0.099 nm in size (Covalent Radii). That means they can fit half a petabyte per square inch, bringing the constant battle between storage capacity and size reduction to a level we’ve never seen before.
"In theory, this storage density would allow all books ever created to be written on a single post stamp," Dr Otte commented. “Or, by another measure, the entire contents of the US Library of Congress could be stored in a 0.1mm-wide cube."
How is information written to such a tiny memory?
The team use what is called a scanning tunnelling microscope – a highly advanced process that uses a microscopic sharp needle to probe the atoms on the surface of the chip, implanting them with information.
During this, the data and the needle pushes atoms around to their correct positions, fitting them tightly together for consistent data read/write – kind of like a sliding puzzle as Dr Otte compares it to.
"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," Sander continued. "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."
So, great! When can I get my own?
Well… There’s some bad news there. The only way this microscope technique works is at a temperature of almost -200 degrees Celsius (-328F) in a near-perfect vacuum. Don’t expect a 500TB SD Card on the PC World shelves any time soon.
“In its current form the memory can operate only in very clean vacuum conditions and at liquid nitrogen temperature (77 K or -195C), so the actual storage of data on an atomic scale is still some way off,” Dr Otte admitted. “But through this achievement we have certainly come a big step closer.”
So with a surprisingly impressive stability and scalability of this storage, the team are continuing their research into this area to see if they can bring it out of the vacuum… This could be incredibly beneficial in reducing down the sheer size of data centres across the planet.
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