Scientists Just Invented the Densest Data Storage Device Ever

Adam Rowe

Nanoscientists at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands just revealed their invention of the densest way to store rewriteable digital data: on the atomic level. Individual chlorine atoms can be rearranged on a sheet of copper to make the most efficient hard drive ever developed.

How efficient? Team lead Sander Otte stated that the approach could in theory put every book ever into a space the size of a postage stamp. According to a Popular Mechanics write-up, that's enough to “fit the entire Library of Congress on a cube smaller than a dust mite—or the size of George Washington's pupil on a one dollar bill.”

How It Works

Popular Mechanics also sums up the fascinating data storage process in a few paragraphs:

“Here's how it's done: Otte's team found that they could put chlorine atoms onto a cold grid of copper metal and get them to form into perfect squares. Think of it like a checkerboard. Any empty spot that was missing a chlorine atom would like a dark square on Otte's checkerboard. Next, the researchers found they could scoot around the chlorine atoms on this grid, sort of like a sliding block puzzle, and thus rearrange where the dark spots on the grid are. It's done with a tool called a scanning tunnelling microscope, which is a bit like an ultra-thin needle that can nudge atoms up and down, left and right.

[…] The arrangement of atoms and blank spaces translates to individual bits of data. A blank space followed by a chlorine atom is a 0, while the reverse (a chlorine atom and then a blank space) is a 1. Using this method, Otte can store any digital information, be it lines from a speech or small segments of computer code.”

One Big Problem

But the data storage method is far from perfect:

“It may be a dense way to store data, but it's also heartbreakingly slow. Reading a few short sentences on one of the copper blocks takes around 1 to 2 minutes, and writing them takes 10. But Otte's team is investigating new methods they believe could speed up their writing and readout speeds by an incredible amount, up to about 1 megabit per second, about a tenth as fast as the average U.S. computer downloads data online.”

More information on the new data storage technology can be found in today's issue of the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

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Adam is a writer at Tech.co and has worked as a tech writer, blogger and copy editor for the last decade. He's also a Forbes Contributor on the publishing industry (and Digital Book World 2018 award finalist) and has appeared in publications including Popular Mechanics and IDG Connect. When not glued to TechMeme, he loves obsessing over 1970s sci-fi art.