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Plenty of Room at the Bottom

The entire Library of Congress in a space smaller than a dust mote.

By Jonathon KeatsDecember 20, 2016 6:00 AM
Each missing atom (dark blue) in this memory device holds a bit of data, giving unprecedented storage density. | Courtesy of Sander Otte


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The Library of Congress sprawls over 2 million square feet and can hold some 10 million books. In July, Delft University physicist Sander Otte showed off a way to fit all that writing in a space smaller than a dust mote.

Otte stores information by manipulating individual chlorine atoms within a layer of chlorine on a copper lattice. The chlorine is moved with the tip of an electron microscope, representing one computer bit with a single displaced atom. Data is read by scanning gaps between atoms and the microscope’s probe.

So far, Otte has used the technology to store text by Charles Darwin — and overwritten Darwin with an excerpt from physicist Richard Feynman’s text “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.”

The storage density of this 100 square-nanometer system is 500 times more compact than the most advanced commercial hard disk. But the storage space on this early device is still extremely limited, and Otte admits that its reading and writing speed must increase exponentially to become practical. In the long run, however, he believes our existing technology won’t be able to get smaller forever. Atom wrangling could overcome the limitations of downscaling. “What we do completely breaks with that tradition,” he says. “We build new things from the bottom up.” — Jonathon Keats

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