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World’s Smallest Hard Disk is the Answer to Data Storage Woes

Jul 19, 2016 02:51 AM EDT

A team of scientists created an atom-sized hard disk that could reduce data to its smallest possible limit.

Researchers from the Kavli Institute of Nanoscience at Delft University published their atomic-level data storage breakthrough in the journal Nature. In the study, the researchers managed to reduce data to the ultimate limit: by building a memory of 1 kilobyte where each bit is represented by the position of one chlorine atom.

"In theory, this storage density would allow all books ever created by humans to be written on a single post stamp," lead researcher Sander Otte said in a press release.

According to the research team, they have managed to reach the storage density of 500 Terabits per square inch (Tbpsi), which is 500 times better than the best commercial hard disk available today.

"The base pairs in a DNA molecule (A, T, C and G) each consist of tens of atoms," Otte told Mashable.

"So no matter how you store data in there, it will be less dense than one bit per atom, as we have demonstrated."

Otte added that while DNA is typically linear allowing for one dimension of storage, they have managed to work in two dimensions.

The scientists made use of a scanning tunneling microscope (STM) in which a sharp needle probes the atoms on a surface one by one. These probes allow the scientists to see the atoms and move them around like a sliding puzzle, researchers said.

"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," Otte explained.

"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."

The method keeps all atoms together in place, which, according to the scientists, is more stable than other methods with loose atoms.

The scientists then arranged their memory in blocks of 8 bytes (64 bits), where each block has a marker made of the same type of holes as the chlorine atoms. The markers work like QR codes, carrying the information to the precise location of the block on the copper layer. The code also indicates whether a block is damaged either due to errors or contaminants. This allows the memory to be easily scaled up to big sizes, the researchers said.

Otte said that the breakthrough could help make data centers more scalable and more stable. But the researchers believe that the discovery can do more than just revolutionize data storage.

"[It's a] demonstration of how well we can now organize the world with atomic precision," the scientists wrote.

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