Wet future for storage predicted as disks reach limits

Nanowires suspended in water could be the foundation of a breakthrough in storage capacity, but the technology hasn't been proven yet. Lucas Merian reports

Using a combination of water and a piece of wire 100,000 times thinner than a hair, researchers at several leading universities are developing a new data storage medium that has data transfer rates as fast as RAM.

According to the researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University and Harvard University, barium titanium oxide nanowires suspended in water could hold 12.8 million GB per square centimetre. If the memory density can be realised commercially, “a device the size of an iPod nano could hold enough MP3 music to play for 300,000 years without repeating a song, or enough DVD-quality video to play movies for 10,000 years without repetition,” according to the University of Pennsylvania.

The researchers are using water to stabilise and control ferro-electricity in the wires, thereby pushing and pulling on atoms in the wires — which are about three-billionths of a metre wide — and influencing how those atoms line up.

Jonathan Spanier, assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Drexel, and a lead researcher on the project, cautioned that there is still an “enormous” amount of research to be completed, but, he says, the technology is promising.

“Hopefully, this will give us a fresh perspective on how we might be able to store information. If there is a demand ... perhaps we can take small steps towards staggeringly larger storage density,” he says.

One limitation with today’s tape and disk magnetic storage is that the basic component is a magnetic domain that is not stable at molecular levels, he says.

“The magnetisation will spontaneously flip back and forth because of [temperature] fluctuations.”

One of the barriers the scientists have had some success in surmounting with ferro-electric storage is a de-polarising field that has been a source for instability in the vanishingly thin wires.

“Because we’ve been able to write to and read from a bit that is essentially within a three nano-metre diameter wire, this means that if one could pack wires together ... in rows, it implies an immense capacity for storage,” Spanier says.

However, “We’ve certainly not worked out what the [storage] device would look like”, he says.

“We don’t have a clear plan that I can discuss [for a product], although we’ve been discussing [this] with some manufacturers. This is early-stage research. How would it look, would it be with nanowire, would it be with films? How would we be able to manipulate the molecules? [That] is not clear yet.”

Spanier says there are those who’ve been working on vertical arrays of nanowires for devices, “so it’s probably not inconceivable that we might be able to come up with a scheme to address this in a volume capacity”.

The Argonne National Laboratory, one of the US Department of Energy’s largest research centres, has conducted its own research on ferro-electric storage that resulted in findings similar to those of Spanier and his colleagues.

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