Atomic scale data storage paves the way for world's tiniest hard drives

Original news release was issued by the Delft University of Technology.
In 1959, physicist Richard Feynman challenged his colleagues to engineer the world at the smallest possible scale. He speculated that if we had a platform allowing us to arrange individual atoms in an exact orderly pattern, it would be possible to store one piece of information per atom. More than half a century later, Sander Otte and his research team managed to honor a section of Feynman’s famous lecture There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom on an area 100 nanometers wide.
Every single day, our modern society creates more than a billion gigabytes of new data. To store this immense amount of data, it is important that each single bit occupies as little space as possible.  A team of scientists at the Kavli Institute of Nanoscience at Delft University managed to reach a storage density of 500 Terabits per square inch (Tbpsi), 500 times better than the best commercial hard disk currently available. They built a memory of 1 kilobyte (8,000 bits), where each bit is represented by the position of one single chlorine atom.

The team used a scanning tunneling microscope (STM), in which a sharp needle probes the atoms of a surface, one by one. The probes allow scientists to not only see the atoms but also push them around. “You could compare it to a sliding puzzle,” explains Sander Otte, lead-scientist.

“Every bit consists of two positions on a surface of copper atoms, and one chlorine atom that we can slide back and forth between these two positions. If the chlorine atom is in the top position, there is a hole beneath it — we call this a 1. If the hole is in the top position and the chlorine atom is therefore on the bottom, then the bit is a 0.” says Otte.

Inspired by the QR codes, the researchers from Delft organized their memory in blocks of 8 bytes (64 bits), where every block has a marker. These markers function as miniature QR codes that carry information about the precise location of the block and also indicate if a block is damaged. This also allows the memory to be scaled up to very big sizes, even if the copper layer isn’t entirely perfect.
“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.” concludes Otte.