Data centers will fit in a laptop form factor eventually

Atomic-scale memory could one day significantly reduce the amount of space needed for data

Data centers will fit in a laptop form factor eventually
Delft University

Storing all of the books ever written on media the size of a postage stamp is possible with atom-based memory, say scientists.

Five hundred terabits per square inch is doable, in fact. That would be 500 times more efficient than current state-of-the-art commercial hard drives, say the researchers from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.

To prove the feat could be accomplished, the scientists created an 8,000 bit memory “where each bit is represented by the position of one single chlorine atom,” the university says in a press release.

Essentially, one atom represented one piece of information in the ground-breaking experiment.

The key to making atom storage work is to organize atoms so that they appear in an exact pattern, thought theoretical physicist Richard Feynman back in 1958. By getting the order exact, it should be possible to achieve one piece of data per atom, he said.

So, that was the route the researchers took.

And while it’s been known since at least 1958 that a reduction of data storage mass is desirable—billions of gigabytes of data are created daily, the release claims—the issue has always been one of developing the equipment to perform the coding.

Viewing and manipulating atoms

The Dutch students used a scanning tunneling microscope (STM). The device probes the atoms of a surface one by one with a needle. That allows the atoms to not only be viewed, but also to be manipulated.

"You could compare it to a sliding puzzle," lead scientist Sander Otte says in the release. A kind of barcode, reminiscent of a QR code, is created by the atom ordering to map the atoms.

The memory is ordered in marked blocks of 8 bytes, which equals 64 bits.

Each bit is made up of “two positions on the surface of copper atoms, and one chlorine atom that we can slide back and forth between these two positions,” Otte explains.

“If the chlorine atom is in the top position, there is a hole beneath it. We call this a ‘one.’ If the hole is in the top position and the chlorine atom is therefore on the bottom, then the bit is a ‘zero,’” he says.

In other words, binary code: the ones and zeroes of a circuit, where one is on and zero is off—and the simplest form of memory.

The QR code-like markers store the location of the block, which is retained on a slice of copper.

The big question, of course, is: How long will it be before our monolithic data centers descend into decrepit, abandoned archeological sites of the 20th and 21st centuries? If all books can fit on a postage stamp, then all of social media’s algorithms and collected user behavior can, too, along with troves of IoT sensor data.

The Delft University students say to wait a bit before shuttering the word’s data centers and expecting to cart all our “atomic-scale” data around in a laptop.

“In its current form, the memory can operate only in very clean vacuum conditions and at liquid nitrogen temperature (77 K), so the actual storage of data on an atomic scale is still some way off. But through this achievement, we have certainly come a big step closer,” Otte says.

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