IBM researchers score data storage breakthrough

IBM Corp. Research on Tuesday announced what it believes is a breakthrough in data storage using nanotechnology that allows a trillion bits of information to be packed into a square inch, the equivalent of about 25 million printed textbook pages on a postage-stamp size surface.

The research project, code-named Millipede, uses thousands of nanosharp tips to punch indentations that represent individual bits into a thin plastic film. IBM officials described this as the nanotech equivalent of the data processing punch card. The major advantage of this new approach, according to IBM researchers, is that the technology can be operated with much less power and is re-writable.

“Since a nanometer-scale tip can address individual atoms, we anticipate further improvements far beyond even this fantastic terabit milestone,” said Gerd Binnig, a Nobel laureate and one of the guiding forces behind the Millipede project. “While current storage technologies may be approaching their fundamental limits, this nanomechanical approach is potentially valid for a thousand-fold increase in data storage density,” Binnig contended.

The Zurich Switzerland-based research team is now working on a prototype that it expects to complete by early next year. That prototype will use 4,000 tips that will all work simultaneously over a square film measuring 7mm. These dimensions would allow an entire high-capacity data storage system to be crammed into flash memory, which is the smallest storage format currently in use.

“This fully functioning prototype is still on a printed circuit board, but all the key micromechanical elements are as small as they will be in the final packaged version. It will be able to demonstrate the capability of storing, reading, and erasing data,” said Peter Vettiger, Millipede’s project leader with IBM Research in Zurich.

The new technology could significantly change the face of mobile computing, Vettiger believes, making a wide variety of wireless consumer and corporate devices such as cell phones and digital and video cameras much more powerful. It could also raise the viability and commercial popularity of Web-based services available to such devices.

“This project could bring tremendous data capacity to mobile devices such as personal digital assistant, cellular phones, and multifunctional watches. We are also exploring the use of this concept in a variety of other applications, such as large-area microscopic imaging, nanoscale lithography, or atomic and molecular manipulation,” he said.

While flash memory is not expected to surpass 1GB to 2GB capacities any time soon, the technology used in Millipede could fit 10GB to 15GB of data into the same format, without and additional power needed to operate the device.

“This technology could carry your whole CD library in a flash memory type form factor,” Vettiger said.

If IBM were to product devices that used the technology — and IBM has yet to make that commitment according to Vettiger — such devices would likely not appear until 2005. Big Blue has between 20 and 30 patents on the technology, with about half pending and half approved, Vettiger said.

Users can get more information about Millipede by going to Illustrations and animations of the technology are also available at