INL participates in the fabrication of the smallest hard disk to date

July 19, 2016

A collaboration between the Dutch University TU Delft and INL leads to the fabrication of a laboratory prototype of digital memory with atomic-scale bits that outperforms the storage density of current technologies by a factor of 500. The results were published in Nature Nanotechnology A kilobyte rewritable atomic memory (authors: F. E. Kalff, M. P. Rebergen, E. Fahrenfort, J. Girovsky, R. Toskovic, J. L. Lado, J. Fernández-Rossier & A. F. Otte)

Every day, modern society creates more than a billion gigabytes of new data. To store all this data, it is increasingly important that each single bit occupies as little space as possible. A team of scientists at the Kavli Institute of Nanoscience at Delft University, in collaboration with the theory group at INL, managed to bring this reduction to the ultimate limit: a memory of 1 kilobyte (8,000 bits), where each bit is represented by the position of one single chlorine atom. “In theory, this storage density would allow all books ever created by humans to be written on a single postage stamp”, says lead-scientist Sander Otte, from TU Delft.


The fabricated memory breaks several records. “It is, by far, the largest structure fabricated by assembling atoms 1 by 1, as nobody had ever gone beyond one thousand”, said Joaquín Fernández-Rossier, from INL. The prototype memory reached a storage density of 500 Terabits per square inch (Tbpsi), 500 times better than the best commercial hard disk currently available. Scientists at INL provided the computational simulations that permit an understanding of the remarkable stability of the atomic scale bits. The results of this collaboration were published in Nature Nanotechnology on Monday, July 18th.


In 1959, physicist Richard Feynman challenged his colleagues to engineer the world at the smallest possible scale. In his famous lecture There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom, he speculated that if we had a platform allowing us to arrange individual atoms in an exact orderly pattern, it would be possible to store one piece of information per atom. To honour the visionary Feynman, the Delft and INL scientists decided to code a section of Feynman’s lecture on an area 100 nanometers wide.

Sliding puzzle

The team used a scanning tunnelling microscope (STM), in which a sharp needle probes the atoms of a surface, one by one. With these probes, scientists can not only see the atoms but they can also use them to push the atoms around. “You could compare it to a sliding puzzle”, Otte explains. “Every bit consists of two positions on a surface of copper atoms, and one chlorine atom that we can slide back and forth between these two positions. If the chlorine atom is in the top position, there is a hole beneath it — we call this a 1. If the hole is in the top position and the chlorine atom is therefore on the bottom, then the bit is a 0.”

Because the chlorine atoms are surrounded by other chlorine atoms, except near the holes, they keep each other in place. That is why this method with holes is much more stable than methods with loose atoms and more suitable for data storage.


The researchers from Delft organised their memory in blocks of 8 bytes (64 bits). Each block has a marker, made of the same type of ‘holes’ as the raster of chlorine atoms. Inspired by the pixelated square barcodes (QR codes) often used to scan tickets for aeroplanes and concerts, these markers work like miniature QR codes that carry information about the precise location of the block on the copper layer. The code will also indicate if a block is damaged, for instance, due to some local contaminant or an error in the surface. This allows the memory to be scaled up easily to very big sizes, even if the copper surface is not entirely perfect.


The new approach offers excellent prospects in terms of stability and scalability. Still, this type of memory should not be expected in data centres soon. Otte: “In its current form the memory can operate only in very clean vacuum conditions and at liquid nitrogen temperature (77 K), so the actual storage of data on an atomic scale is still some way off. But through this achievement, we have certainly come to a big step closer”.

This research was made possible through support from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). Scientists of the International Iberian Nanotechnology Laboratory (INL) received funding from the Marie Curie SPINOGRAPH training network.