A team of physicists in the Netherlands have developed a storage device composed of chlorine atoms on a tiny metal surface that could one day be scaled up to hold about 10 terabytes of data on a 1cm square space.
Delft University of Technology (DUT) physicist Sander Otte and his team developed a 1-kilobyte storage device by arranging chlorine atoms in a series of terrace-like square grids on a copper surface.
The key to the device is the ability to move atoms around a surface. Researchers demonstrated in the 1990s that an instrument called a scanning tunnelling microscope could be used to move xenon atoms from its tip to a single-crystal nickel surface.
According to Nature, on the Delft-built device, each grid contains a few empty slots into which the researchers can push chlorine atoms, which allows them to switch between ones and zeroes on the line. One chlorine atom and one vacancy make one bit, and each line on the grid encodes one byte.
The device is currently a proof-of-principle, and needs to be kept at -198 degrees Celsius to operate, however the researchers believe it does have potential for data storage in the cloud. If the researchers could make a three-dimensional structure, a chlorine atom system like theirs could hold hundreds of terabytes of data on a cube the size of a grain of salt.
Otte told Nature their copper and chorine atom device is "by far the largest assembly on an atomic scale that's ever been created".
Atomic scale storage might be in its infancy, but researchers at Microsoft believe there is a need for higher capacity data storage technologies like it.
Microsoft is exploring synthetic DNA for long-term data storage as it believes that disk-based and optical media can't keep up with growing demand for data storage.
Researchers at Microsoft and the University of Washington announced earlier this month they'd stored a record 200MB of data on the molecular strands. They believe the DNA strands can deliver longevity of 2,000 years and support zettabyte-scale storage requirements.