At this point, the human species has more information stored and archived than ever before, and there’s more by the hour. The problem is that our storage media, while increasingly high-capacity, is increasingly frangible: CDRs and hard drives just don’t last long, and we’re in a largely unnoticed race between the growth of our body of knowledge and our ability to store it permanently.
Enter Alex Zettl and friends from the University of Berkeley, who’ve developed a storage medium based on carbon nanotubes that isn’t just extremely capacious but exceptionally durable and resistant to the ravages of time:
The system consists of a minuscule particle of iron encased in a carbon nanotube and represents information in binary notation—the zeroes and ones of “bits.” Using an electric current, information can be written into the system by shuttling the iron particle back and forth inside the nanotube like a bead on an abacus—the left half of the nanotube corresponds to zero, the right half corresponds to one. The encoded information can then be read by measuring the nanotube’s electrical resistance, which changes according to the iron particle’s position.
Because of their very small size, a square-inch array of these nanotube memory systems could store at least one terabit—a trillion bits—of information, approximately five times more than can be packed into a square inch of a state-of-the-art magnetic hard drive. But Zettl believes the technology could be pushed to much higher information densities.
“We can manipulate this particle and read out its position so accurately, we could divide the nanotube’s length into 10 or even 100 units instead of just two,” Zettl says. “Whether this is worthwhile to implement right away, I’m not sure, because it adds complexity, but it could immediately give us 10 or 100 times the information density with the same device.”
I’m immediately reminded of Charlie Stross’s thoughts about bit-per-atom data storage, and how it will enable us to record everything we do – literally everything. Bandwidth, processing power and storage are the pillar commodities of the information economy, and all three of them are still racing toward an omega-point of virtual zero cost; what happens when they’re all as ubiquitous as air itself? [image by ghutchis]