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How nanotechnology could change data storage in the future

Since the beginning of the new millennium, nanotechnology has been a hot topic in both the media and tech industry. Over this period of time, there has been much debate regarding what exactly nanotechnology can and could achieve. For example, some people believe that nanotechnology has the ability to extend the human life, while others think that it’s just a tool to help us do what we do now but on an enhanced level.

There are also disagreements regarding timeframes of these nanotechnological advancements. Some think they will play a significant role in our lives in a decade or two, while others think it will take considerably longer for it to bring any real effect.

So, with such a variety of opinions and debates revolving around nanotechnology, we thought we would take a deeper look into this interesting subject and focus on the following question…

  • What is nanotechnology and what does it mean for the future of data storage?

What is nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology is a trend word that was created in the late nineties, which simply describes technologies that create materials in nanometer scale. To give you an idea of how small a nanometer is, it would take 800, 100-nanometer particles side by side to match the width of a human hair!

When conventional materials are formed as nano-sized particles their properties change. This is because a nanoparticle will generally have a much bigger surface area per weight than larger particles, making them more reactive.

Nanotechnology is already frequently used in many fields. Cars, for example, are painted with a special nano-binder that makes water and rain flow down the bodywork, which prevents them from rusting. Nanoparticles of hydroxylapatite are used in the production of toothpaste, with the intention of repairing tiny scratches on the surface of the teeth.

Nanotechnology in data storage

The trend of using smaller and smaller devices is nothing new. In the 70s and 80s, the trend word was ‚micro‘ while today is it ‚nano.‘

What many people do not realize is that the use of nanotech in computer technology has been around for years. Flash-based memory chips that are used in computers and cameras today consist of semiconductor materials that are covered by an insulating oxide layer, which is only a few nanometres thick. Saving and deleting data on a Flash storage media is only possible by using a phenomenon of quantum mechanics and this nanotechnology.

What can nanotechnology bring to data storage?

The advantages of Flash-based memory chips, USB and SSD cards would not be possible without the reduction in size beyond the nanometer barrier.

But over the years, due to the increase in big data, other methods have been discovered that both minimize the storage space used and allow you to save more data on less space. With more and more companies creating massive amounts of data, research continues into the field of data storage; most of which use nanotechnology.

The future: Storing data with atoms

Recently, research has been announced that it is possible to store data directly in the smallest possible component – an atom! This new phenomenon was discovered by Dr. Sander Otte a physicist from the Delft University of Technology, who used chlorine atoms.

Dr. Otte developed a method where the chlorine atoms arrange themselves on a flat copper surface to form, a two-dimensional array. According to an article written by Michael Schneider, “By providing fewer chlorine atoms that would be necessary for the complete coverage, gaps or holes are created in the array, so-called vacancies. From a gap and a chlorine atom, a bit may be put together – the smallest information or memory unit of computers. By moving single chlorine atoms in and out of vacancies of the array it can be switched between two states corresponding to the binary code of ones and zeroes which is the basis on which computers work.”

By using a computer-controlled scanning tunneling microscope his team is able to pull the atoms from gap to gap until the needed bit arrays are formed and can be read out.

This technology could mean that this data storage facility that is no bigger than the surface of a stamp, could store every book that has ever been created.

Even though this method works fine in the lab, one of the main issues with this technique is that is very slow: reading out a very small 64-bit block of data takes a minute, writing it takes 2 minutes. Additionally, the process only works in a temperature of -196 °C and the atoms only remain for 2 days on there assigned position, meaning any data stored in lost.

Storing data with nanomagnets

The use of atoms to store data was also researched by an international team consisting of scientists from Switzerland, France, and the USA. In the study, the team was able to create nanomagnets.

The nanomagnets were created by fusing a magnetizable atom to a silicon surface. To do this, the team developed a molecule with an atom of dysprosium – a rare earth metal – where the molecule scaffolding acts as a “vehicle” for the atom. The molecule is then bound to the silica nanoparticles using a process called annealing – heating, followed by slow cooling- at 400 degrees Celsius. During this process the molecular scaffolding disintegrated, leaving behind only the dysprosium atoms dispersed on the silica surface.

However, the main issue with nanomagnets is like the chlorine atoms the magnetism only lasts for a short amount of time (90 seconds) and at the temperature of -270 centigrade. Far from practical for storing computer data!

Conclusion

The studies discussed in this article clearly show that researchers all over the world are working on new methods to store data using nanotechnology. However, these new ideas and methods are still far from being market-ready, and until such technology is ready consumers and enterprise users must continue to use HDDs, SSDs, and tape.

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