Watch: More Memory, Less Space

23 July 2018

More memory, less space: That was the rallying cry for scientists at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, who have spent years of painstaking incremental advances to create what is now the most dense, solid-state memory in history.

Their atomic-scale rewritable memory, which works by removing or replacing single hydrogen atoms, is a significant achievement for nanotechnology. It offers a 1,000-fold increase over the capacity of current hard drives.

Roshan Achal, a Ph.D. physics student, put it this way: "Essentially, you can take all 45 million songs on iTunes and store them on the surface of one quarter."

One of the key features of the new memory is that, unlike previous discoveries, it doesn’t require cryogenic conditions to keep it stable. It’s created at ultra-low pressures and temperatures, but is road-ready for real-world temperatures and beyond — withstanding normal use and transportation beyond the lab, something Achal said is overlooked in the nanofabrication business. The nanostructures are stable up to 200 degrees Celsius (392 degrees Fahrenheit).

Achal worked on the project with University of Alberta physics professor Robert Wolkow, a pioneer in atomic-scale physics. "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. A spin-off company, Quantum Silicon Inc., is now working on commercializing atom-scale fabrication.

The scientists presented some playful demonstrations of the new memory’s capacity, such as encoding binary versions of letters of the alphabet at the memory’s maximum storage density of 138 terabytes per square inch — roughly equivalent to writing 350,000 letters across a grain of rice. They also fabricated the world’s smallest maple leaf, the most widely recognized national symbol of Canada. They even stored a simplified version of the music from the Mario video game through manipulation of just 62 atoms.

The research appears in the July 23, 2018, issue of Nature Communications.

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