The secret to our data storage woes could be an atom or, more precisely, a grid of them.
Atoms, the smallest building blocks in nature, have their appeal as a storage medium. We certainly need a new storage paradigm. Something that takes up considerably less space than the current large-scale solution: data centers.
Dotted throughout the world, data centers are like highly organized versions of our basements, crammed full of stuff we only occasionally access, but still consuming vast amounts of space and energy. According to the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), these data centers eat 91 billion kilowatts of electricity a year (as of 2013).
Could future data centers use atomic storage?
Companies like Facebook are at least trying to tackle the energy issue with new, eco-friendly, wind-powered data centers . But that won’t help with the space issue. Re-writable atomic memory could potentially tackle both challenges.
In a new paper published Monday in the science journal Nature , Delft University researchers announced their atomic-level breakthrough in data storage.
Using atoms to store data puts these researches a microscopic step ahead of the scientists who, earlier this month, figured out how to store an OK Go music video on DNA .
“The base pairs in a DNA molecule (A, T, C and G) each consist of tens of atoms. So no matter how you store data in there, it will be less dense than one bit per atom, as we have demonstrated,” Associate Professor Sander Otte told Mashable in an email. The lead researcher, added that, while DNA is linear, allowing for one dimension of storage, their breakthrough works in two dimensions.
According to the study, scientists took a copper plate, dried chlorine onto it and then used the natural grid-like structure of the chlorine atoms to identify 8×8 atom blocks. They also made sure to only partially cover the plate with atoms, leaving multiple blocks open within each grid, but never having two blocks open in a series (when that happened, it was identified as an error and those blocks weren’t used for data storage).
Otte explained that the chlorine atoms bond to the copper via an ionic bond. This holds them in place, but allows them to be moved. The study describes them being moved in much the same way as you move pieces in a traditional sliding puzzle, which usually has just one block missing.
A portion of the kilobyte of atomic memory featuring Richard Feynman’s lecture excerpt.
Each pair of missing (known as vacancies) and filled-in atoms is identified as a bit (a 1 or a 0). The scientists were then able to move these atoms from their original spot to the vacancy using the tip of a scanning tunneling microscope (STM).