Atomic data storage could increase the data density of current computer-storage devices by a factor of 1000 and Blu-ray discs by a factor of 100.
The capacity of digital-data storage devices has been steadily growing for decades. But if recent work on atomic data storage by scientists at the University of Alberta in Canada can be commercialized, that capacity would take a quantum leap beyond anything we might imagine today.
Physics PhD student Roshan Achal and his faculty advisor, Robert Wolkow, report that they have succeeded in storing digital 0s and 1s using single hydrogen atoms. If a hydrogen atom is present in a particular location, that represents a 1; if there is no atom, that represents a 0.
Hydrogen atoms are only half a nanometer in diameter, so the resulting data density is 1.2 petabits (150 terabytes) per square inch. That’s 1000 times more density than current hard discs and solid-state drives and 100 times greater than Blu-ray discs. UHD Blu-ray discs aren’t much better, with only 1.3 times more data density per layer than Blu-ray. At 1.2 petabits per square inch, all 45 million songs on iTunes could be stored on a surface the size of a quarter.
Previous work on manipulating single atoms required an environment at close to absolute zero (-273.15° C or -459.67° F). Of course, that makes any real-world application completely impractical. But Achal and Wolkow have found a way to position atoms at room temperature, and they remain stable indefinitely. In fact, their technique is expected to be able to preserve data without errors for over 500 years!
So, how do you manipulate individual hydrogen atoms? With a scanning tunneling microscope (STM). Wolkow developed a technique to push atoms around on a silicon substrate with the tip of an STM—a technique that he believes has now reached a tipping point. In fact, his spinoff company, Quantum Silicon, is now working on commercializing atomic-scale fabrication for various tech industries.
To demonstrate the technology, the team created a 192-bit memory cell, in which they stored a simple rendition of the Super Mario Brothers video-game theme song. In another demo, they stored the letters of the alphabet one at a time in a rewritable 8-bit cell using ASCII code. The graphic above shows the configuration for the letter “A.”
The final obstacle seems to be the write times. According to the paper announcing the results, it took between 10 and 120 seconds to write each letter in ASCII code. Of course, that’s way too slow for a practical storage device, but these are only the first baby steps toward vastly higher capacities. Atomic data storage is around the corner, which would transform everything digital, including audio and video.
The paper describing this research appears in Nature Communications; click here if you care to dig deep into atomic data storage.
The University of Alberta created a short video about this work; check it out: