U.C. Berkeley Device Could Store Data for Billion Years

New data storage technology being developed by U.C. Berkeley researchers may allow for information to be both stored for more than one billion years and adaptable for use in general-market products.

There are currently many different kinds of memory storage devices — including magnetic disks, magnetic tape and optical disks — but these devices are not suitable for long-term storage because they can degrade over time, according to Will Gannett, a graduate student in physics working on the project.

"To come up with a longer-lived replacement for these technologies, a first step is to find a single bit that can store your data for a suitable length of time," Gannett said.

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The device made by the U.C. Berkeley team — which is led by physics professor Alex Zettl — has an iron nanoparticle enclosed in the middle of a hollow carbon nanotube, according to Gannett.

For scale, a nanoparticle is 1/50,000 the width of a human hair, which is approximately 100,000 nanometers in diameter.

The nanoparticle has a lifetime of over a billion years, unlike existing devices with a life expectancy of only 10 to 30 years, according to a paper by the researchers recently published in several scientific journals.

To store digital bits, the fundamental unit of memory, a small voltage is applied across the nanotube, causing the iron nanoparticle to move back and forth inside the tube.

When information is stored on the nanoparticle, its location within the tube changes. As this changes, so does the resistance of its containing tube, which can be used by scientists to play back the stored information using computer programming.

"There are a few nice things about this system," Gannett said. "First of all, the voltage required is only around a couple volts, which is very easy to generate and compatible with existing technologies. Second, the iron will stay where we 'put' it — that is, it doesn't move when the voltage is turned off."

The nanoparticle can move approximately three nanometers at a time over a length of a few hundred nanometers, he said.

According to Gannett, another method used to retrieve information is using an electron microscope, but the resistance method is more practical.

"This is what makes the system potentially very useful," he said. "Measuring resistance is much easier than measuring the actual position and requires only very simple electronics, not an electron microscope."

Because of this aspect, future integration with other electronic devices like MP3 players could be possible, according to Gannett.

"I think this project is a stepping stone, showing that there are ways of storing digital data that are very different from what is currently used and that may hold great advantages in data lifetime and density," he said.

This story was filed by UWIRE, which offers reporting from more than 800 colleges and universities worldwide. Read more at www.uwire.com.