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IBM Shrinks Bit Size To 12 Atoms

samzenpus posted more than 2 years ago | from the more-on-less dept.

Data Storage 135

Lucas123 writes "IBM researchers say they've been able to shrink the number of iron atoms it takes to store a bit of data from about one million to 12, which could pave the way for storage devices with capacities that are orders of magnitude greater than today's devices. Andreas Heinrich, who led the IBM Research team on the project for five years, said the team used the tip of a scanning tunneling microscope and unconventional antiferromagnetism to change the bits from zeros to ones. By combining 96 of the atoms, the researchers were able to create bytes — spelling out the word THINK. That solved a theoretical problem of how few atoms it could take to store a bit; now comes the engineering challenge: how to make a mass storage device perform the same feat as scanning tunneling microscope."

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135 comments

frist (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38678120)

yay

12 atoms? Go smaller! (4, Funny)

Xanny (2500844) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678124)

Preface: I'm just a programmer nerd who reads slashdot. I have no idea what I am talking about.

I wonder if it would be possible to have data storage as an ionization of a solid in the normal operating range of tech (and probably small, like carbon) where ionized atoms represent one bits and non ionized represent zero bits, and you can read atoms in some rigid lattice where the ionized ones represent ones and the neutral atoms are zeroes. Yea, there are huge problems, like preventing electron shell state dropping and keeping the electrons off the negatively charged carbon, but it seems like it would be a great objective considering the smaller data storage type after atom ionization will be measuring quark states to represent multi valued data.

Re:12 atoms? Go smaller! (4, Funny)

alphatel (1450715) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678156)

That's so 2011. You need a neutrino computer.

Re:12 atoms? Go smaller! (2)

viperidaenz (2515578) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678184)

I also have no idea what I'm talking about but:

Isn't an ionized atom one with too many or too few electrons? Don't electrons flow freely though any material even remotely conductive? So wouldn't you need to separate the atoms with an insulating material of sufficent width to stop electrons moving between the atoms?

Re:12 atoms? Go smaller! (4, Funny)

griffjon (14945) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678222)

Only if you care about data integrity...

Re:12 atoms? Go smaller! (1)

sidthegeek (626567) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678444)

Which would make the concept ideal for some type of RAM/flash/platter hybrid storage medium. Non-volatile enough to be useful, and enormous storage sizes. Not sure about the read-write speeds though.

Re:12 atoms? Go smaller! (2)

sheepe2004 (1029824) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678536)

That's pretty much how RAM [wikipedia.org] and flash [wikipedia.org] memory works at the moment, only the extra electrons are inside a capacitor/transistor rather than an atom so you can actually read and write the memory.

Re:12 atoms? Go smaller! (3, Funny)

Amouth (879122) | more than 2 years ago | (#38679160)

so this will work great for WMRN memory - just where you want to keep your secrets that no one should see..

A given (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38678296)

Preface: I'm just a programmer nerd who reads slashdot. I have no idea what I am talking about.

Most of us consider that a given here.

Re:A given (0)

omfgnosis (963606) | more than 2 years ago | (#38681104)

And most people who post here assume an air of authority they don't deserve. With the disclaimer's honesty, I'm more inclined than I would be otherwise to believe Xanny knows what they're talking about. But if I think about this too much I fear I'll find myself in an infinite loop.

Re:12 atoms? Go smaller! (5, Insightful)

tocsy (2489832) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678546)

I'm a materials science graduate student, and my research is on semiconductors. While I don't work with materials for data storage, I have a pretty good background in electronic properties of materials so maybe I can shed some light on the situation.

Basically, I suppose this would be hypothetically possible but the problems you'd face would be very, very difficult to solve. The big problem here is that in order to keep something ionized, you would have to completely isolate it from any other atoms that might donate/steal an electron. Again it's hypothetically possible, but impractical considering most of those are noble gasses. Not to mention, storing data as ionized/unionized atoms is fundamentally different from the way we store data now (magnetic domains). I think the more reasonable idea would be to shrink magnetic domains, as well as the number of magnetic domains required to form a bit. If I remember correctly, currently each magnetic domain consists of several hundred atoms and each bit consists of around 100 magnetic domains. As the article states, the best we could get is one atom representing one bit, and the probability of using magnetism over changing to ionization as the mechanism for differentiation between ones and zeroes is very high.

How about chemical representations? (1)

JSBiff (87824) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678742)

I think, perhaps, here, the challenge would be finding a rapid, cheap way to write/read the data, but one idea that occured to me, instead of ionizing atoms is, what if you could find a simple molecule which could be changed to another simple molecule by the addition/reduction of one atom.

Something like Carbon Monoxide = 0, Carbon Dioxide = 1. Seems like you could potentially get a lot of data density with something like that?

Re:How about chemical representations? (1)

Khyber (864651) | more than 2 years ago | (#38679058)

That would require tons of power to make bonds. Also, where would you get the extra oxygen?

We have something better - Phase CHange memory. Made from the same stuff CD-RWs are made of.

Re:How about chemical representations? (1)

tocsy (2489832) | more than 2 years ago | (#38679388)

True, and phase change memory is pretty badass. However, there's definitely a larger size limit on phase change memory than magnetic data storage - you pretty much by definition have to have more than one atom in a system to determine what phase it's in. Also, you then have to figure out how to read the data (probably either optically or my measuring the resistance of the bit), all of which would require a fair sized bit.

Re:12 atoms? Go smaller! (1)

SuricouRaven (1897204) | more than 2 years ago | (#38679178)

Even if you're insisting on magnetic domain only, you aren't limited to one-bit-per-atom. You can point domains more than just up and down - if you accept domains pointing at right angles to the usual directions, you can get two bits per atom.... or as many as you want, limited only by the angular resolution of your sensor. It'd be totally impractical to do something like that though.

Re:12 atoms? Go smaller! (1)

tocsy (2489832) | more than 2 years ago | (#38679310)

Interesting point, I hadn't though of that. Although what you're talking about is still only one "bit" per atom, but each bit would have more possibilities than just ones and zeroes. So you could have - for example - a bit with the possibility of being 0-5 for each of the cardinal directions, in which case you'd have to use a language with base 6 instead of binary. Still, conceptually very interesting.

Re:12 atoms? Go smaller! (1)

quenda (644621) | more than 2 years ago | (#38679728)

Yes, it would be so cool to say "My scanning tunneling microscope goes to ELEVEN [wikipedia.org] ".

Re:12 atoms? Go smaller! (4, Informative)

dissy (172727) | more than 2 years ago | (#38679930)

There was a wonderful paper in Nature titled "The Ultimate physical limits to computation" by Seth Seth Lloyd (Yes the guy with the funny laugh), which discussed exactly how small computation and processing can ever get (Short of discovering new physics of course)

Entry page: http://arxiv.org/abs/quant-ph/9908043 [arxiv.org]
Direct PDF Link: http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/quant-ph/pdf/9908/9908043v3.pdf [arxiv.org]

It's a fascinating read, which I highly recommend. I believe it will answer your questions as well.

The summary of the paper:

Computers are physical systems: what they can and cannot do is dictated by the laws of physics. In particular, the speed with which a physical device can process information is limited by its energy and the amount of information that it can process is limited by the number of degrees of freedom it possesses. This paper explores the physical limits of computation as determined by the speed of light $c$, the quantum scale $\hbar$ and the gravitational constant $G$. As an example, quantitative bounds are put to the computational power of an `ultimate laptop' with a mass of one kilogram confined to a volume of one liter.

And... (2)

RPGillespie (2478442) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678130)

How do we know it isn't possible to store a bit in fewer than 12 atoms? I'm not seeing how that "solved" anything, only that they proved it was possible to store a bit with as few as 12 atoms.

Re:And... (1)

SJHillman (1966756) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678190)

It solved a theoretical problem. They never solved a real problem. But in theory, it was a problem and they solved it.

Re:And... (2)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38678292)

They didn't solve a theoretical problem. The theoretical limit is a function of planks constant and the uncertainty principle and the amount of energy you're allowed to use. They solved (part of) the engineering problem. There's a ways to go before they solve the production/commercialization problem.

Re:And... (1)

tragedy (27079) | more than 2 years ago | (#38680806)

There isn't just one theoretical limit. There are lots of theoretical limits. Some of those theoretical limits people are more sure of than others, but dozens or even hundreds of theoretical limits have been broken through already in computer engineering and in data storage specifically. Then the theories have to change. There were plenty of people who theorized that Charles Babbage's Difference Engine could never work. They might not have been very good theories, but many people still accepted them until the actual construction of a full working version disproved those theories.

Re:And... (2)

hedwards (940851) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678278)

Theoretically they could to it with subatomic particles, in practice who knows when if ever that will become viable. If they manage it though, it would be pretty mindblowing. I'm guessing that it's going to be extremely difficult to accomplish and take decades to arrive, if it ever does.

Re:And... (5, Informative)

DriedClexler (814907) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678298)

There are theoretical limits to how much information can be stored in a molecule -- this given by the molar entropy, typically expressed in J/(K*mol). But it can also be expressed, more intuitively, as bits per molecule.

(Yes [wikipedia.org] , you can convert between J/K and bits -- they measure the same thing, degrees of freedom.)

Per this table [update.uu.se] , iron has a molar entropy of 27.3 J/K*mol, or 4.73 bits/molecule.

IBM is claiming an information density of (1/12) bits/molecule, which is reasonable -- the thermodynamic limit is ~57x greater.

Re:And... (4, Informative)

timeOday (582209) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678580)

And the document you cited assumes a temperature of 298.15 K (77F). At room temp, the IBM technique requires about 150 molecules, not 12 (cite [extremetech.com] ):

"At low temperatures, this number is 12; at room temperature, the number is around 150 - not quite as impressive, but still an order of magnitude better than any existing hard drive or silicon (MRAM) storage solution."

So there is even more headroom in the thermodynamic limit.

Re:And... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38679772)

I'm assuming this is limited to certain ways of storing information. After all, in 2009 Stanford researchers claim to have stored 35bits per electron (not even atom).
http://news.stanford.edu/news/2009/january28/small-012809.html [stanford.edu]

Re:And... (4, Funny)

gandhi_2 (1108023) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678590)

You know, when you are storing bits and you are already at 12, where can you go from there? Where?

No where.

Ours goes to 11.

One smaller.

Re:And... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38678752)

It solved a possible method to reach this threshold. As for the fundamental limits of holding data to the least possible atoms, well, there are natural limits due to physics which won't change without changing some well established and fundamental theories of physics. This news isn't so much about the fundamental theory but more the methods to reach close to it (a new milestone if you will). Being able to produce things that can hold data this small is a large accomplishment even if it's more lab work then actual consumer. These research and discoveries in the lab is what paves the way towards the technology that eventually reaches your hand.

Re:And... (1)

Surt (22457) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678856)

The solved the question of whether or not it was possible with 12. Now on to 11!

Re:And... (2)

AaronLS (1804210) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678900)

It'd be foolish to try and engineer a bit per 12 atom storage device without first demonstrating that it is actually possible to do.

It is a proof of concept and shows that trying to use 12 atoms to store a bit isn't impossible.

IBM's new vision (2, Funny)

s_p_oneil (795792) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678132)

IBM's new vision:
A scanning tunneling microscope in every home with an IBM sticker on it.

Re:IBM's new vision (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38678226)

Nothing wrong with that...

Re:IBM's new vision (3, Insightful)

paleo2002 (1079697) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678256)

Next thing you know, everyone will have to buy appliances with electron guns, magnetrons, lasers and other outlandish sci-fi devices built into them. They'll probably take up entire rooms and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars!

Re:IBM's new vision (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38678316)

...and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars!

So like, TWO lattes?

Re:IBM's new vision (1)

jmkaza (173878) | more than 2 years ago | (#38679060)

Have to, or get to?

"Cloud" (2)

betterunixthanunix (980855) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678318)

More likely you will see this sort of thing used by "cloud" providers, who can afford a high up-front cost and greatly expand their capacity. A lot of data will sit unused on service providers' storage devices, and so they can have a much higher ratio of storage to computing power.

Re:IBM's new vision (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38679332)

IBM is such a behemoth. Intel brought single-Atom chips to market, like, five years ago...

Re:IBM's new vision (3, Funny)

DriedClexler (814907) | more than 2 years ago | (#38679714)

Please. There's a world market for maybe 5 scanning tunneling microscopes.

The REAL question is... (5, Funny)

Prime Mover (149173) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678136)

...once they have these new mass-storage devices, how can I turn it into a homebrew tunnel scanning microscope?

Re:The REAL question is... (3, Informative)

tragedy (27079) | more than 2 years ago | (#38680882)

You can make one now if you like. There's an article here [popsci.com] about someone working on an open source kit, but it also mentions other places that will sell you a kit to build your own.

awesome (4, Funny)

demonbug (309515) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678146)

Now they just have to work on that random access time of 300000 milliseconds.

Should be easy, right?

Re:awesome (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38678530)

Didn't read the article to see if the 300000ms is a joke or how long it actually took to read/write. If it is, though, apply a Moore's Law approach to it, and we should be down to 9ms after 15 18-month cycles, or 22 years.

Re:awesome (1)

DrSkwid (118965) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678738)

Moore's law is about cost per transistor, not speed.

Re:awesome (1)

voidphoenix (710468) | more than 2 years ago | (#38681362)

No, Moore's Law is mainly about transistor density. Improved cost, speed and power use are effects of smaller transistor sizes.

Re:awesome (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38680058)

The thing is, Moore's Law is not a technique or approach, merely an observed trend. You cannot "apply" Moore's Law.

Excellent! (2)

DC2088 (2343764) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678148)

Now give me my subdermal and/or extraneural memory storage, dammit.

Re:Excellent! (1)

DC2088 (2343764) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678166)

And before anyone asks, no, nobody ordered a pizza.

Re:Excellent! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38678896)

Johnny stored data with his neurons, not synthetic/external ones, that was the whole point.

I think 12 atoms should be enough for everyone ... (3, Informative)

PolygamousRanchKid (1290638) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678172)

. . . now as to shrinking that scanning tunneling microscope . . . that might take a while . . .

Is anyone aware of how "big" they are . . . I'm not thinking that the word "small" is appropriate . . .

Re:I think 12 atoms should be enough for everyone (3, Informative)

neokushan (932374) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678220)

To be fair, have you seen how big the first Magnetic HDD's were? Granted, different technology and they still stored a hell of a lot more than 5 bytes, but miniaturisation is only a matter of time.

Re:I think 12 atoms should be enough for everyone (1)

ColdWetDog (752185) | more than 2 years ago | (#38679266)

To be fair, have you seen how big the first Magnetic HDD's were? Granted, different technology and they still stored a hell of a lot more than 5 bytes, but miniaturisation is only a matter of time.

Yep, according to the idiots at MSNBC [msn.com] , we're already there.

Talk about reading comprehension failures.

Sigh.

Re:I think 12 atoms should be enough for everyone (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38678244)

The smallest one I have seen is about half the size of a compact car. But I think they get down to the size of a desk.

Re:I think 12 atoms should be enough for everyone (3, Insightful)

pscottdv (676889) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678818)

Actually, an STM is typically about the size of a baseball. The vacuum chamber housing it, however...

Re:I think 12 atoms should be enough for everyone (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38678402)

The term "large" is not even appropriate in terms of data storage.

Re:I think 12 atoms should be enough for everyone (1)

c0lo (1497653) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678600)

. . . now as to shrinking that scanning tunneling microscope . . . that might take a while . . .

Is anyone aware of how "big" they are . . . I'm not thinking that the word "small" is appropriate . . .

Example [cnx.org]

Counterexample (1)

DarthStrydre (685032) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678862)

Tunneling accelerometers are mainstream. They are basically a STM without the scanning ability, with the "pinhead" on a MEMs arm. These are in tiny chips. Combining these with perhaps thermal expansion "heater" actuators, and you have a crude yet tiny STM, with very limited storage capacity (limited by X * Y travel / bit spacing.

Re:I think 12 atoms should be enough for everyone (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38678858)

you can get an STM that will fit on your desk (played with one in undergrad)

Re:I think 12 atoms should be enough for everyone (5, Informative)

JustinOpinion (1246824) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678886)

Is anyone aware of how "big" they are

An actual STM instrument is pretty big. About the size of, say, a mini-fridge. But the majority of that is the computer to drive the system, the readout electronics, and the enclosure (to dampen out vibrations, establish vacuum, etc.). The actual readout tip is pretty small: a nano-sized tip attached to ~100 micron 'diving board' assembly.

A related problem with STM is that it's a serial process: you have a small tip that you're scanning over a surface. This makes readout slow. However in a separate project, IBM (and others) has been working on how to solve that: the idea is to use a huge array of tips that scan the surface in parallel (IBM calls it millipede memory [ibm.com] ). This makes access faster since you can basically stripe the data and read/write in parallel, and it makes random seeks faster since you don't have to move the tip array as far to get to the data you want. It increases complexity, of course, but modern nano-lithography is certainly up to the task of creating arrays of hundreds of thousands of micron-sized tips with associated electronics.

Using tip arrays would make the read/write parts more compact (as compared to having separate parallel STMs, I mean). The enclosure and driving electronics could certainly be miniaturized if there were economic incentive to do so. There's no physical barrier preventing these kinds of machines from being substantially micronized. As others have pointed out, the first magnetic disk read/write systems were rather bulk, and now hard drives can fit in your pocket. It's possible the same thing could happen here. Having said that, current data storage techniques have a huge head-start, so for something like this to catch up to the point where consumers will want to buy it may take some time.

Per dalton? (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38678204)

I'm only a two bit chemist, but per atom doesn't sound very exact since atoms vary in weight between 1 dalton (1/(6e23)grams) and way over 200 times that.

Re:Per dalton? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38678568)

shrink the number of iron atoms it takes to store a bit of data from about one million to 12

'Iron atoms', not just 'atoms.' It is very exact.

Antiferromagnetism... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38678280)

What an attractive piece of technology...

12 atoms for to signal a 0 or 1? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38678344)

Surely you should get SEVERAL bits per single atom. If you have N different atoms, you can encode in base N merely[0] by lining them up. Iron Iron Iron Iron Gold Gold Iron Gold. There, I just sent eight bits using eight atoms.

[0] Engineering problems notwithstanding.

Re:12 atoms for to signal a 0 or 1? (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38679000)

I am not aware of a process to transmogrify iron into gold...

Density isn't always the problem (3, Insightful)

dzr0001 (1053034) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678350)

Increasing disk density only solves a handful of problems. Unfortunately it can create more problems as well. As disk size increases, more and more applications will become io bound due to contending for the same piece of metal. For many, if not most, organizations that need large amounts of data, increasing per disk density is pointless unless new technology can be introduced to retrieve it at an exponentially faster rate.

Bad article (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38678354)

There's a better article here [popularmechanics.com] which includes some more information on the experiment. In particular the temperature was 0.5K.

Also the computerworld article claims that using an antiferromagnetic arrangement of atoms is an advantage because it pulls the atoms more tightly together. I'm not convinced that this is true but even if it is the effect would be completely negligible. The interesting aspect of this arrangement is that each atom cancels out the magnetic field of the atoms either side of it which should help with data stability (a similar effect is seen in perpendicular recording today).

Unrelatedly: have they/will they publish a paper on this? I can't find anything mentioning a paper in the press releases.

Re:Bad article (2, Insightful)

sheepe2004 (1029824) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678382)

Gah posted this as AC by mistake.

Re:Bad article (1)

ColdWetDog (752185) | more than 2 years ago | (#38679810)

How the hell does this get modded troll?

Protip: Well, I don't have one. Just chalk it up to another mod bot failure.

Re:Bad article (4, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38678798)

Yes, but the paper is tiny and can only be read at low temperatures.

Re:Bad article (0, Troll)

AaronLS (1804210) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678946)

Gah posted this as AC by mistake.

Re:Bad article (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38679664)

So you admit you meant to Karma whore? And why was THIS parent comment modded up?

Re:Bad article (4, Informative)

JustinOpinion (1246824) | more than 2 years ago | (#38679134)

Unrelatedly: have they/will they publish a paper on this? I can't find anything mentioning a paper in the press releases.

The actual paper was published today in Science:
Sebastian Loth[1,2], Susanne Baumann[1,3], Christopher P. Lutz[1], D. M. Eigler[1], Andreas J. Heinrich[1] (Affiliations: [1] IBM Almaden Research Division, [2] Max Planck Institute, [3] University of Basel) Bistability in Atomic-Scale Antiferromagnets [sciencemag.org] Science 13 January 2012: Vol. 335 no. 6065 pp. 196-199 DOI: 10.1126/science.1214131 [doi.org] .

The abstract is:

Control of magnetism on the atomic scale is becoming essential as data storage devices are miniaturized. We show that antiferromagnetic nanostructures, composed of just a few Fe atoms on a surface, exhibit two magnetic states, the Néel states, that are stable for hours at low temperature. For the smallest structures, we observed transitions between Néel states due to quantum tunneling of magnetization. We sensed the magnetic states of the designed structures using spin-polarized tunneling and switched between them electrically with nanosecond speed. Tailoring the properties of neighboring antiferromagnetic nanostructures enables a low-temperature demonstration of dense nonvolatile storage of information.

Some big names are on this paper (Don Eigler [ibm.com] is a pioneer of STM; responsible for the famous "IBM written with xenon atoms [ibm.com] " proof-of-concept, and along with Lutz worked on the also-famous "quantum corrals [wikipedia.org] ").

PDP Anyone? (3, Funny)

walkerp1 (523460) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678386)

Had they used the clearly superior RAD-50 [wikipedia.org] encoding, they could have stored THINK with a mere 384 atoms as opposed to 480.

Re:PDP Anyone? (3, Funny)

Applekid (993327) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678428)

Had they used the clearly superior RAD-50 [wikipedia.org] encoding, they could have stored THINK with a mere 384 atoms as opposed to 480.

I'm just glad they didn't use EBCDIC.

Re:PDP Anyone? (3, Funny)

walkerp1 (523460) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678532)

Had they used the clearly superior RAD-50 [wikipedia.org] encoding, they could have stored THINK with a mere 384 atoms as opposed to 480.

I'm just glad they didn't use EBCDIC.

They tried, but the inherent chaos very nearly brought on the heat death of the universe.

Re:PDP Anyone? (1)

93 Escort Wagon (326346) | more than 2 years ago | (#38679214)

I'm just glad they didn't use EBCDIC.

Or Half-ASCII.

Crystal Skulls (1)

na1led (1030470) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678400)

Maybe now we can read all that data stored in those Crystal Skulls.

Re:Crystal Skulls (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38679312)

... I hope you're joking. National Geographic had a special recently about them. I was unaware that Francis Mitchell-Hedges, the famous explorer, actually discovered the famous "Skull of Doom" in the ancient Mayan city of Sotheby's auction house in London, despite his biography's (and his daughter's) claims to have found it in a ruin in South America.

  The Skull was made in Europe, in the 19th century, with machine tools. These kind of skulls were a sort of retro-kitsch fad at the time, except that it wasn't really retro -- the Mayans never made anything remotely like them.

Units of measure (1)

iinlane (948356) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678476)

I thought the size of one bit IS one bits. Next they'll tell you that the size of atom is yellow.

Re:Units of measure (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38678578)

Have you never measured the length of a paper by the number of pages?

Vibration will be the biggest challenge (3, Interesting)

claytongulick (725397) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678490)

From what I understand the most severe engineering challenge with designing a portable STM will be overcoming the vibration issues. Current "home brew" STMs are built in a sandbox for this reason, afaik.

Re:Vibration will be the biggest challenge (3, Insightful)

JustinOpinion (1246824) | more than 2 years ago | (#38679002)

You're right that for STMs and AFMs instruments, vibration is a huge issue. But when using those instruments, you're trying to image nano-sized objects, or even individual atoms. So of course vibrations bigger than an atom's width will ruin your image. You can compensate for this (to a point) by making the device more rigid, and also by dampening out environmental noise. But there's a limit to what you can do (e.g. you can't make the cantilever your tip is attached to very stiff, or you would ruin your sensitivity).

In an atomic magnetic memory, though, you wouldn't really be imaging individual atoms. You'd be scanning the tip back-and-forth and trying to sense (or set) the local magnetic field. Thus you wouldn't need to use a soft cantilever to hold the tip. A very stiff/rigid one would be fine, as long as it is correctly positioned in relation to the encoding atoms (close enough for sensing, etc.). The magnetic response in general will be stronger than the usual imaging modes for STM.

My point is just that using a STM-like device for storing/retrieving data eliminates many of the design constraints that a full-blown STM needs (because it's trying to do precise topography and density-of-states imaging...). You can play many engineering tricks that they can't afford to do in a real STM.

Having said that, many challenges would remain. External vibrations could still make the device unstable (or require it to sample for longer periods to average-out signals, thus making data throughput lower). Temperature stability is probably going to be a major concern (thermal expansion will change the nano-sized gap between the tip and bits, which will need to be compensate for; thermal noise could overwhelm the signal entirely; thermal gradients could make alignment of the tips and compensation for temperature drift even harder; etc.).

Then again, you only have to look at the absurd sophistication of modern HDDs or CPUs to be convinced that we can handle these kinds of challenging engineering problems (if there is enough economic incentive).

Re:Vibration will be the biggest challenge (3, Informative)

Electricity Likes Me (1098643) | more than 2 years ago | (#38679224)

It's also worth noting that modern hard disks already position the read head staggeringly close to the platter already - on the order of 10nm of clearance or less. And this is in a consumer electronic device.

Most of the constraints of STM and AFM are related to the fact that they are general purpose, highly accurate devices, intended to study arbitrary samples (and work down to the 0.1 nm type scales while doing it).

Smaller but Bigger!!! (2)

wrfelts (950027) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678576)

I can see it now. 500 petabytes stored on a postage stamp housed in a device the size of an overstuffed, large suitcase. It has geek written all over it! I must have one.!!!

Then we'll need a faster bus (4, Interesting)

FridayBob (619244) | more than 2 years ago | (#38678598)

Imagine having a hard disk with a capacity of 2,000 TB. Using a SATA 3.0 bus with a sustained maximum throughput of 600 MiB/s, it would still take over 37 days to read or write the entire device.

Re:Then we'll need a faster bus (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38678894)

Yeah, I can imagine 37 days worth of HD Pron... I mean movies in the palm of my hand, ahem; nevermind.

Re:Then we'll need a faster bus (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38678970)

It better be the non kleenex using hand.

Re:Then we'll need a faster bus (1)

dissy (172727) | more than 2 years ago | (#38679490)

Porn would be one of the few special cases where such a drive capacity would be useful (Unless of course you are very serious about your porn!)

Data backups by nature require making a duplicated copy of the used space on the drive. If you fully utilize the drive, that would translate to copying the entire 2 PB drive, and at best only having one backup every 37 days (assuming a continuously running backup process)

So with current bus technology, it would be easiest to simply not make a backup of such a drive, and only use it for storing files you don't mind losing.
2 PB is a bit over the top for /tmp and swap space, but if most people lost their porn collection that didn't have a backup, it wouldn't be the end of the world.

I certainly wouldn't use it in a RAID configuration, or store too much of anything important on it however.

At least not until HDs use multi-fiberoptic interconnects at terabyte speeds ;}

Re:Then we'll need a faster bus (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38679626)

Using a SATA 3.0 bus with a sustained maximum throughput of 600 MiB/s, it would still take over 37 days to read or write the entire device.

How about we put 16 SATA cables together side by side so it transfers 16 bits at a time? We could make it tidier by replacing them with a single IDC ribbon. You never know it might catch on.

Re:Then we'll need a faster bus (1)

Taco Cowboy (5327) | more than 2 years ago | (#38679674)

Imagine having a hard disk with a capacity of 2,000 TB. Using a SATA 3.0 bus with a sustained maximum throughput of 600 MiB/s, it would still take over 37 days to read or write the entire device.

By the time this atomic scale HD hits the consumer sphere - if they do, it'll be something like 20+ years from now - I'm sure by then (2030+) they would have parallel version of SATA 9.0 that can read the entire 2ExaByte content in like 0.2 milsec

Re:Then we'll need a faster bus (1)

FridayBob (619244) | more than 2 years ago | (#38680584)

By the time this atomic scale HD hits the consumer sphere - if they do, it'll be something like 20+ years from now - I'm sure by then (2030+) they would have parallel version of SATA 9.0 that can read the entire 2ExaByte content in like 0.2 milsec

You forget that when it comes to sustained throughput, hard disks have always been slower than the buses used to connect them. It's a problem that's intrinsic to writing/reading data to/from a mechanical medium. In this case the disks can't really rotate any faster, so the bigger they get, the more tracks there are to access and the worse the problem becomes.

Sure, over time the sustained throughput rates have increased, but that's only because of the steady increase in areal density. Assuming IBM's new technology eventually makes it into the common hard disk, there will naturally be a faster bus technology to accommodate the increased bit rates to/from the read/write heads, so you can bet it will take less than 37 days to read or write the entire disk. However, it will still take a lot longer than with a 2 TB disk today! The only way to get rid of the underlying problem is to stop using rotating disks altogether and to start using things like SSDs instead, which can be accessed at speeds that are not subject to mechanical limitations.

Re:Then we'll need a faster bus (1)

inhuman_4 (1294516) | more than 2 years ago | (#38680098)

While yes using a SATA 3.0 would take forever, there is no reason to think that when these drives a produced that will be the standard used for them. I think it is more likely that they will connect to something like PCIe 16x slot (or whatever dongle they are using to connect to that bus). A v3.0 PCIe 16x will do 16GB/s so it would take 34 hours with technology in most people's computer right now. By the time 2EB drives get on the market I don't think it will be an issue.

I'm more concerned about when all the programs I use are going to get properly threaded so my 32 core computer of the future won't be wasting most of it's clock cycles. Threading is not trivial and there are a lot of legacy programs out there.

Re:Then we'll need a faster bus (1)

FridayBob (619244) | more than 2 years ago | (#38680696)

While yes using a SATA 3.0 would take forever, there is no reason to think that when these drives a produced that will be the standard used for them. I think it is more likely that they will connect to something like PCIe 16x slot (or whatever dongle they are using to connect to that bus). A v3.0 PCIe 16x will do 16GB/s so it would take 34 hours with technology in most people's computer right now. By the time 2EB drives get on the market I don't think it will be an issue.

If IBM's new technology eventually makes it into the common hard disk, there will naturally be a faster bus technology to accommodate the increased bit rates to/from the read/write heads (due to the higher areal density), so you can bet it will take less than 37 days to read or write an entire disk. However, because the disks can't really rotate any faster than they do now, the bigger they get, the more tracks there will be to access and the longer it will take to read or write the whole thing. The only way to get rid of the underlying problem is to stop using rotating disks altogether and to start using things like SSDs instead, which can be accessed at speeds that are not subject to mechanical limitations.

Perfect Timing (2)

guttentag (313541) | more than 2 years ago | (#38679172)

So they should have this ready for practical applications in the consumer market right about the same time hard drive component manufacturing [nytimes.com] becomes available and, coincidentally, about the same time the hard drive industry jumps on the Thunderbolt bandwagon. Perhaps this trifecta will also coincide with the Third Coming of Steve Jobs -- with no hard drives available, almost no one using his new Thunderbolt, and no ability to store his entire movie collection on one hard drive, he figured he'd leave Earth for a while and come back when we were ready for him.

Anyone else pick up on the note in TFA about how this technology uses 96 bits to make one byte of data? I wonder if the drive sizes will be advertised in bits to make them seem even more ridiculously impressive!

Re:Perfect Timing (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38679506)

?? 96 bits?

96 atoms...

Not A Big Deal..... (1)

TC Wilcox (954812) | more than 2 years ago | (#38679284)

They only reduced the size a *little bit*.

640K (1)

SnarfQuest (469614) | more than 2 years ago | (#38679824)

Since nobody needs more than 640K, how much space would this take up?

Functionality... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38680078)

The question now is, how many (or should I say few) atoms do you need to address and change the value of one of these bits?

Bad news for the economy? (1)

clintonoshea (2551858) | more than 2 years ago | (#38680104)

IBM is applying this technology to storage space right now, but is it also applicable to processing power? Could this sudden advancement in technology be very problematic for the global economy? If we have come to the end of Moore's Law already, then what's next? Processing power can't be increased any further so there will be no reason for people to upgrade their PCs - why bother when CPUs aren't getting any more powerful?. And quantum computing is a long way off, so I imagine this could be VERY bad for not just the computer industry, but for the global economy as a whole. The industry may have to consider other ways to entice consumers...

um, memristors? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38681480)

a 1 or 0 value? Isn't that like ancient history for storage?

Memristor devices due to be out in a year or two or three will have a 'bit' value much larger than base 2 and take up the same amount of space. About 10nm I believe.

When I read IBM's earth-shattering breakthrough, I think I yawned.

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