Dutch scientists build world’s tiniest hard disk

19 Jul 2016

The future of data storage might be smaller than most of us ever thought after a team of scientists in The Netherlands built a 1kB hard disk consisting of bits the size of an atom.

8,000 bits, one-atom in size, collated onto a 1kB hard disk might sound strange but, according to researchers at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft), it’s where data storage is heading.

As the development of data centres continues to power towards innovative buildings, in cooler climates, the strain on energy output and heat management continues to dominate architectural planning.

Future Human

Atom microchip

However, should hard disks shrink to atomic sizes, such restrictions will vanish. Using chlorine atoms on top of copper, the TU Delft team established that each atom is a perfect square that can be moved around a stack, much like a slide puzzle.

By manipulating the order of the squares – a bit like Minecraft – information can be stored on minuscule hard disks in a clean, logical format.

“In theory, this storage density would allow all books ever created by humans to be written on a single postage stamp,” said lead scientist Sander Otte.

Using a scanning tunneling microscope, in which a sharp needle probes each atom on the surface of the hard disk, information such as letters, words or even clues towards broken data can be formed.

STM scan (96 nm wide, 126 nm tall) of the 1 kB memory, via UT Delft

STM scan (96 nm wide, 126 nm tall) of the 1kB memory, via TU Delft

“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,” said Otte.

Whenever the chlorine atom is at the top it represents 1, when at the bottom it represents 0. Because the chlorine atoms are surrounded by other chlorine atoms, and are square-shaped except near the holes, they keep each other in place. While manipulated like a sliding puzzle, its appearance is inspired by QR codes, with each minuscule square integral to the storage of information.

Though the example is an incredibly small hard disk, Otte said the team can scale up quite easily. The only downside, for now, is the environment in which the hard disk is stored.

“In its current form, the memory can operate only in very clean vacuum conditions and at liquid nitrogen temperature,” said Otte. However, the materials used can all be improved upon, offering hope of a new age of data centres in the future.

Main hard disk image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic