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Friday Fun: Denser Non-Volatile Data Storage

In the category of “hard to believe” materials science becoming reality, a group of scientists have recently published experimental work:

A Stanford-led team has invented a way to store data by sliding atomically thin layers of metal over one another, an approach that could pack more data into less space than silicon chips, while also using less energy.

The research, led by Aaron Lindenberg, associate professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford and at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, would be a significant upgrade from the type of nonvolatile memory storage that today’s computers accomplish with silicon-based technologies like flash chips.

Essentially the layers are only 3 atoms thick, comprised of a new class of metals that can be formed into such thin layers:

The researchers stacked these layers, made from a metal known as tungsten ditelluride, like a nanoscale deck of cards. By injecting a tiny bit of electricity into the stack they caused each odd-numbered layer to shift ever-so slightly relative to the even-numbered layers above and below it. The offset was permanent, or non-volatile, until another jolt of electricity caused the odd and even layers to once again realign.

And then the differences in state can be read (otherwise, what good is writing the state in the first place), but I just have to quote the article again:

To read the digital data stored between these shifting layers of atoms, the researchers exploit a quantum property known as Berry curvature, which acts like a magnetic field to manipulate the electrons in the material to read the arrangement of the layers without disturbing the stack.

Berry curvature.  Of course!  When I was in college I recall the moment when I realized that at a certain scale, Chemistry becomes Physics (or High-Energy Physics). At the time I didn’t have an appreciation for how the chemistry and materials science of Silicon Valley would eventually lead to pushing the boundaries of how we manipulate atoms (and perhaps smaller) particles.

This science is a long way from going to market, but it is fascinating to see the kinds of possibilities it opens up.

[full disclosure: many eons ago when I was a student at Stanford, I had an internship and senior project at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory – and as a result have always been fond of that little corner of Stanford in particular.  The folks I worked with there were welcoming of a mere kid in their midst, and they turned me lose to write some of my best code as a college student, moving an application from one platform to another. I learned a lot about Unix and X-windows and Motif.  But also about NeXT and it’s programming environment – InterfaceBuilder. That experience is what landed me the job offers that I received and ultimately led to me moving to Austin for a job.  Incidentally, about 2 weeks before the end of school year, but well after I had accepted that offer to move to Austin, I received an invitation to interview with NeXT.  I politely declined given that I had already accepted a job, but can’t help but wonder what the path not taken might have led to!  The echoes of that early InterfaceBuilder experience are still there in Xcode. ]


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