Mobile phones, iPods and other consumer devices may someday be able to hold a hundred times more information than they do at present thanks to a breakthrough in storage technology.
Scientists at IBM say they have demonstrated a new type of digital storage which would enable a device such as an MP3 player to store about half a million songs — or 3,500 movies — and cost far less to produce.
In a paper published in the April 11 issue of Science magazine, a team at the company's research center in San Jose, Calif., said that devices which use the new technology would require much less power, run on a single battery charge for "weeks at a time," and last for decades.
So-called "racetrack" memory uses the "spin" of an electron to store data and can operate far more quickly than regular hard drives.
Like flash memory — the most advanced type of memory for small devices such as mobile phones — it has no moving parts, meaning that the problems associated with mechanical reliability are dramatically reduced.
Unlike flash, however, it can "write data" — or store information — extremely quickly, and does not have the "wear out" mechanism that means flash memory drives can only be used a few tens of thousand times before they wear out.
"The promise of racetrack memory — for example, the ability to carry massive amounts of information in your pocket — could unleash creativity leading to devices and applications that nobody has imagined yet," Stuart Parkin, the IBM researcher who led the research, said.
At present the most capacious iPod, the 160 GB iPod Classic, can store 40,000 songs. Still, that's 32 times the amount of storage the first iPod had when it debuted in late 2001, six and a half years ago.
Parkin said racetrack memory could lead to the development of "three-dimensional micro-electronics," breaking with the tradition of scientists trying to fit an ever-greater number on transistors on an ultra-thin piece of silicon shaped like a wafer.
"The combination of extraordinarily interesting physics and spintronic materials engineering, one atomic layer at a time, continues to be highly challenging and very rewarding," he said.
For nearly 50 years, scientists have explored the possibility of storing information inside the walls that exist between magnetic domains, but to date manipulating such walls has been too expensive and complicated to achieve significant results.
In his paper, Parkin describes a milestone in which he and his team were able to store data in columns of magnetic material arranged on the surface of a silicon wafer. The information moves around the columns at high speed, giving the technology its "racetrack" name.
IBM said the technology was still "exploratory" at this stage, but that it expected devices which used it to be on the market within 10 years.