Plenty of Room at the Bottom

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

By Jonathon KeatsDec 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


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

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

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2023 Kalmbach Media Co.