If you thought that scientists had made remarkable advances in data storage technology to date, be prepared to have your mind blown.

Those of us old enough to remember the first generation of MP3 players were amazed to think that thousands of songs could fit onto a device the same size as a cassette. Now data storage solutions have taken a massive leap forward with the development of the world’s smallest hard drive, writes Mary Pascaline for International Business Times.

Smallest Hard Drive In The World Writes Atom-By-Atom
Image source: YouTube

Scientists in Holland break new ground in data storage

A team of Dutch scientists have found that they can manipulate single atoms in order to store 1 kilobyte of data in just 100 nanometers of space. This means that all of the books in the world could be held on a machine around the same size as a postage stamp.

The results of their research were published on Monday in the journal Nature Nanotechnology. Scientists from the Technical University of Delft (TU Delft) claim to have invented an atomic hard drive capable of storing data at a density 500 times greater than existing hard drives.

Lead researcher Sander Otte, an associate professor at TU Delft, and his team discovered that a perfect square grid could be created by placing chlorine atoms on a copper surface. When an atom is missing, a hole appears in the grid and scientists could move atoms around using a scanning tunneling microscope. They were even able to drag atoms towards the hole.

Chlorine atoms and holes manipulated by researchers

If a chlorine atom sits on top of a hole, it is binary digit one. When it is the other way round it becomes a zero, creating a hard drive.

“The combination of chlorine atoms and supporting copper crystal surface that we found now, combined with the fact that we manipulate ‘holes’—just as in a sliding puzzle—makes for a much more reliable, reproducible and scalable manipulation technique that can easily be automated,” Otte reportedly said, “It is as if we have invented the atomic scale printing press.”

Chlorine atoms are kept in place as they are surrounded by other chlorine atoms. The team were able to make the largest atomic structure ever constructed by humans using this method.

Researchers were able to store texts on the atomic hard drive after coming up with a binary alphabet. Among the texts that they chose to save, atom by atom on the copper sheet, were physicist Richard Feynman’s seminal lecture “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” and Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.”

Commercial applications remain some way off

As such the team were able to show that writing, storing and reading data is possible on an atomic scale.

“While the memory outperforms existing media by far in terms of capacity, it still stays far behind in terms of read/write speed,” Otte said. “However, I foresee no physical boundaries that will prevent us from speeding up these processes to similar speeds that are currently seen in [hard disk drives]. It will be a technological challenge for sure, but in terms of physics it should work.”

Despite encouraging signs it will likely be a long time before the science can be used commercially. As it stands it only works in clean vacuum conditions at liquid nitrogen temperatures (-346°F).

“The actual storage of data on an atomic scale is still some way off,” Otte said but added that “through this achievement we have certainly come a big step closer.”