IBM on road to molecular-level digital storage

IBM technology named after an insect has the potential to deliver ultra-high density storage capacity to storage devices the size of a fingertip, according to scientists at IBM's Zurich Research Laboratory.

Storage devices with such a small form factor and consequent low power requirements would naturally be compelling for mobile computing devices, mobile phones or watches, said Peter Vettiger, a scientist at the Zurich lab. "Equally well, you can envision this in audio-visual applications such as video cameras," Vettiger said.

The project, dubbed Millipede, was initiated four years ago by IBM scientists seeking to tackle the paradox of storage. Storage gains are largely achieved by fitting more bits of data into smaller and smaller spaces, and IBM is using a technology it developed, called Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM), to boost the etching capability currently used in chip manufacturing, according to Vettiger. So far, AFM appears to be able to yield storage densities of over 400 gigabits per square inch, according to IBM.

Instead of one tip etching on a chip, IBM is using 1,024 tips poised on 1,024 tiny cantilevers -- hence the project's name -- to poke indentations on polymer which sits on a little silicon table the size of a fingertip, Vettiger said. The pattern of indentations makes up the stored bits of information, which can then be read by the tips, he said. So far, the indentations are on the order of 30-40 nanometers, not yet at the molecular or even the atomic level, but that will probably change, according to Vettiger.

"The AFM technology itself we strongly believe has the potential to move in this direction," Vettiger said.

It will be five years at least before products based on the technology are available, and IBM's solution to the storage-density problem has not yet been anointed by the market or even IBM scientists themselves. Moreover, many universities and companies, including Hewlett-Packard and Samsung Electronics, are working on their own solutions to the storage density problem, Vettiger said.

Still, IBM is optimistic about Millipede's prospects, including the likelihood that the project's capabilities will outgrow the implications of its moniker, according to Vettiger.

"It's no show-stopper to have a million (tips making indentations) on a single chip," Vettiger said. "This technology has a lot of potential."

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