The bootless PC and terabytes on a dime

Imagine a PC with instantaneous boot up or storing 10TB of data -- 10,000 gigabytes -- on a device the size of a dime with data-transfer rates unhampered by any latency.

Those are just two examples of the promises that storage nanotechnologies hold: combining the functions of memory chips and disk drives on a single piece of hardware that is a fraction of the size of devices today.

Nanotechnology, the science of engineering functional systems at the molecular scale, holds the possibility of billions of infinitesimally small machines working together to build products from the ground up using readily available materials.

Systems in development today could do away with internal disk drives all together as well as the computer boot-up process, instantaneously bringing applications up when a PC or laptop is turned on. Other nanotechnology hardware may allow data to be stored for more than 100 years without having to refresh media.

Most production applications for nanotechnology are now used in reading and writing from storage media that are many times superior to today's storage products at a fraction of the cost. But these developments are prompting storage vendors of all sizes to examine not only how they will manufacture products in the future but what their business models may ultimately look like as a result of the disruptive nature of nanotechnology.

Large and small storage vendors are well into developing storage nanotechnology that promises to shrink by tens or hundreds of times the space required to fit today's data.

IBM has three projects focusing on storage nanotechnologies.

Perhaps the most promising of projects at IBM are carbon annotates, which are molecule-size objects composed entirely of carbon in a cylindrical structure, giving them unique properties. According to Tom Theis, IBM's director of physical sciences, "Nanotubes with diameters of only 1.5 to 2 nanometers possess many times the strength of steel and conduct electricity as both a metal and a semiconductor." Because of these properties, Theis says, "I can't imagine a more aggressive transistor technology right now."

Another way in which carbon nanotubes may be used is in the production of a high density, nonvolatile random access memory chip that could replace dynamic RAM, flash memory and even hard drives. Nantero Inc. in Woburn, Mass., has built prototypes of a chip called NRAM (for nanotube-based/nonvolatile RAM) that is faster than DRAM, as portable as flash memory, and able to provide permanent storage because the wafer uses nonvolatile storage as its basis. "This technology could enable instant-on computers that boot and reboot without delays and eliminate the need for internal disk drives on computers," says Greg Schmergel, CEO and co-founder of Nantero.

IBM invented two foundational nanotechnologies: scanning tunneling microscopy (STM) and atomic force microscopy (AFM), both of which modify materials at the atomic and nanometer scale. Capable of imaging individual atoms and positioning them one by one, these technologies lay the groundwork for manipulating data at a molecular level.

Another subatomic project at IBM is a high-density storage system known as "Millipede," which is being carried out in IBM's Zurich laboratories based on its so-called AFM technology.

Millipede uses AFM in its drive heads to read and write to a polymer surface by creating and removing indentations that are only 10 nm in size. Also known as probe-based storage, "Millipede is able to re-use the same area thousands of times", says Karin Vey, the communications manager at IBM's Zurich Research Laboratories.

AFM technology works by using thermo-mechanical writing to the platter's surface by applying a local force through the cantilever/tip to the polymer layer and simultaneously softening the polymer layer by local heating. Once softening has been initiated, the tip is pressed into the polymer, and an indentation is created corresponding to the logical bit "1." The layer without indentation represents the logical bit "0".

To read the written information, the cantilever originally used for writing is given the additional function of a thermal read back sensor by exploiting its temperature-dependent resistance. While Millipede is a research project, IBM claims it is at a "very advanced stage."

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