IBM Touts Nanotech Storage Advances

SAN JOSE, Calif.
Video storage capacities have taken a giant leap forward in the past couple of years with next-gen DVD products using the Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD formats.

Yet if scientists working in nanotechnology continue achieving remarkable breakthroughs, recent studies with scary titles such as “Large Magnetic Anisotropy of a Single Atomic Spin Embedded in a Surface Molecular Network” translate for the rest of us simply into, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Imagine storing 30,000 motion pictures (nearly half the total inventory at a typical Blockbuster outlet) on a device no larger than today’s iPod. That data, according to IBM estimates, entail about 1,000 trillion bits—or the approximate equivalent of the entire contents of YouTube.

(click thumbnail)A computer rendering of a single-molecule logic switch under the point of a needle.In late August, scientists at IBM labs in San Jose and Zurich, Switzerland, announced the latest advance in nanotechnology that IBM Researchers Andreas Heinrich and Cyrus Hirjibehedin believe could eventually lead to the ability to store data—including video/audio content—within individual atomic particles.

“We’re trying to work on the outer edge of what is possible—the storing of information using atoms and molecules,” Hirjibehedin said. “Every atom has a tiny magnet in it, and if we could hold that magnet in a fixed position for a certain period of time, and then switch its orientation whenever we wanted to, we can use that [breakthrough] to store information and increase storage capability on a hard drive by maybe a thousand times more than today.”


Hirjibehedin said magnetism is one big key because it holds the ability to maintain data without having to put more power into it.

“That’s why when you turn off your computer, all that content remains on the hard disc,” he said. “Today, with full-length movies and entire episodes of TV shows able to be downloaded, you can’t really have too much storage space.” And storage demand, he said, will only increase.

The experiments that nano researchers are conducting may sound to some like pure science fiction.

“We actually can place individual atoms at various locations where we want them to be, in order to study them,” said Heinrich. The researchers also have been known to give individual atoms their own names.

“‘Adam the Atom’ was one name,” said Hirjibehedin. “We had a visitor a few months ago from The Netherlands and he started giving the atoms the names of famous Dutch scientists and painters.”

“Sometimes we’d accidentally crash [the system],” Heinrich added. “And so we wound up ‘burying’ a lot of famous Dutch painters under a mountain of atoms!”


Once in a while, nanotech researchers undercover something potentially significant purely by accident, which is what led to the most recent discovery.

“This is common in all scientific research,” said Heinrich. “We start out to study one thing, and something even more important becomes evident. That’s what good science is all about.”

(click thumbnail)Computer graphic rendering of IBM’s single-atom storage building block that some day could lead to vast media storage capacities by CE users.While examining the vibration behavior of certain molecules—which is vital for dealing with future devices operating at the atomic level—they instead discovered important findings regarding molecular switching. By further perfecting the on-and-off switching of single molecules without allowing those molecules to change shape, scientists were able to construct so-called atomic-level “logic gates” which, in turn, make up electrical circuits.

Meanwhile, TV and other technology analysts are keeping a close eye on such advances, realizing the profound implications that further breakthroughs might hold.

“If nanotechnology can dramatically increase storage capacity, the entire question of how people store and access their preferred media gets called into question,” said Analyst James McQuivey of Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass.

“Today, with high-definition DVDs, we can hold an entire TV season on a single disc,” McQuivey said. “But that’s still nothing compared to the kinds of improvements nanotechnology one day promises to make, where a single iPod-sized device could hold not only your entire private media library, but a selection of thousands of titles you haven’t even chosen to buy or rent yet.”

Apart from vast storage potential, research also continues on the carbon nanotube—whose diameter is about 10,000 times smaller than a human hair.

Carbon nanotube technology, among other things, quite literally permits display flexibility.

“It gives us a wide range of applications that [video] displays have not been able to take advantage of yet because today they’re still rigid,” said Barry Young, senior vice president of DisplaySearch, a display systems research and consulting firm in Austin, Texas.


A new product formed from nanotechnology should be evident by the coming holiday season: A super-thin, semi-flexible TV display consisting of self-luminous OLED (organic light emitting diodes).

OLED uses thin organic films as light emitters. Before the end of 2007, Sony plans to ship a long-awaited 11-inch OLED display that will be a mere 1/8-inch deep and have a 16:9 aspect ratio. Sony also has a 27-inch OLED prototype display (1024x600) with a contrast ratio it says is 1,000,000:1.

Toshiba and Samsung also plan to introduce OLED displays in the near future. DisplaySearch predicts 3 million OLED units will be shipped by 2011. It also thinks the price for Sony’s 11-inch OLED will start in the $700 range.

“One of the next big things we’d like to do in nanotechnology is store a specific bit of information within a single atom,” said Hirjibehedin. “We’re looking for a system where that would work. But who knows? We may find something more interesting that distracts us for a while that’s even more revolutionary. We’re working at a level right now where we really don’t know what is, in fact, possible.”