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Super-dense atomic hard drive is near commercial reality

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The most dense solid-state memory so far has been created by scientists at the University of Alberta in Canada, who say it is stable at room temperature and could be used to exceed the capabilities of current hard drives by 1,000 times.

Increases in hard drive capacity generally involve years of painstaking incremental advances in atomic-scale nanotechnology.

But the new discovery for atomic-scale rewritable memory – quickly removing or replacing single atoms – allows the creation of small, stable, dense memory at the atomic scale.

“Essentially, you can take all 45 million songs on iTunes and store them on the surface of one quarter [a Canadian coin 23.88mm in diameter],” said Roshan Achal, PhD student at the University of Alberta and lead author on the research. “Five years ago, this wasn’t even something we thought possible.”

Previous discoveries were stable only at cryogenic conditions but this is not true for the current research, making it more suitable for commercial applications.

“What is often overlooked in the nanofabrication business is actual transportation to an end user; that simply was not possible until now given temperature restrictions,” Achal said. “Our memory is stable well above room temperature and precise down to the atom.”

He said that immediate applications will be data archival while the next steps will be to increase readout and writing speeds, meaning even more flexible applications.

Achal worked with University of Alberta physics professor Robert Wolkow who has developed nanotip technology which can be used to scale up atomic-scale manufacturing for commercialisation.

“With this last piece of the puzzle now in hand, atom-scale fabrication will become a commercial reality in the very near future,” said Wolkow.

To demonstrate the new discovery the scientists not only fabricated the world’s smallest maple leaf, they also encoded the entire alphabet at a density of 138 terabytes per square inch, roughly equivalent to writing 350,000 letters across a grain of rice.

Achal also encoded music as an atom-sized song in a format reminiscent of 1980s and ’90s video games.

In 2016 a team at the Kavli Institute of Nanoscience demonstrated a hard disk that uses individual chlorine atoms to store data although it only worked at extremely low temperatures. 

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