Data storage device
Image courtesy of TU Delft

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Scientists make single-atom memory from copper and chlorine

In 1960, U.S. physicist Richard Feynman famously predicted the coming age of nanotechnology in an essay entitled "There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom." Nowhere has this idea proven more powerful than in the realm of data storage, where by continually shrinking the size of bits of data, today’s computer hard disk drives now pack 10,000 times more information than those from just 15 years ago. Now, that march to the bottom may finally be nearing its end. In today’s issue of Nature Nanotechnology researchers report using a scanning tunneling microscope (STM) to store data at the atomic scale. To do so, they evaporated chlorine atoms atop a copper surface, which assembled themselves into a gridlike pattern with a small number of empty spots. The researchers then used the STM to move individual chlorine atoms around, encoding a series of 0s and 1s into a 12x12 array of rectangular blocks. By precisely controlling the dark spots—places missing a chlorine atom—the team encoded 160 words from Feynman’s “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” lecture, among other writings. Although the process of reading and writing data with an STM remains too slow to make a useful data storage technology, it shows it’s possible to store as much as 500 terabits—or 62.5 terabytes—of data per 6.5 square centimeters, another 500 times better than today’s hard disk technology.