Memories are made of this

Written by Science Knowledge on 5:22 AM

Computing: Memory chips based on nanotubes and iron particles might be capable of storing data for a billion years

FEW human records survive for long, the 16,000-year-old Paleolithic cave paintings at Lascaux, France, being one exception. Now researchers led by Alex Zettl of the University of California, Berkeley, have devised a method that will, they reckon, let people store information electronically for a billion years.

Dr Zettl and his colleagues constructed their memory cell by taking a particle of iron just a few billionths of a metre (nanometres) across and placing it inside a hollow carbon nanotube. They attached electrodes to either end of the tube. By applying a current, they were able to shuttle the particle back and forth. This provides a mechanism to create the “1” and “0” required for digital representation: if the particle is at one end it counts as a “1”, and at the other end it is a “0”.

The next challenge was to read this electronic information. The researchers found that when electrons flowed through the tube, they scattered when they came close to the particle. The particle’s position thus altered the nanotube’s electrical resistance on a local scale. Although they were unable to discover exactly how this happens, they were able to use the effect to read the stored information.

What makes the technique so durable is that the particle’s repeated movement does not damage the walls of the tube. That is not only because the lining of the tube is so hard; it is also because friction is almost negligible when working at such small scales.

Theoretical studies suggest that the system should retain information for a long time. To switch spontaneously from a “1” to a “0” would entail the particle moving some 200 nanometres along the tube using thermal energy. At room temperature, the odds of that happening are once in a billion years. In tests, the stored digital information was found to be remarkably stable. Yet the distance between the ends of the tube remains small enough to allow for speedy reading and writing of the memory cell when it is in use.

The next challenge will be to create an electronic memory that has millions of cells instead of just one. But if Dr Zettl succeeds in commercialising this technology, digital decay itself could become a thing of the past.

Source of Information : The Economist 2009-09-05

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In its broadest sense, science (from the Latin scientia, meaning "knowledge") refers to any systematic knowledge or practice. In its more usual restricted sense, science refers to a system of acquiring knowledge based on scientific method, as well as to the organized body of knowledge gained through such research.

Fields of science are commonly classified along two major lines: natural sciences, which study natural phenomena (including biological life), and social sciences, which study human behavior and societies. These groupings are empirical sciences, which means the knowledge must be based on observable phenomena and capable of being experimented for its validity by other researchers working under the same conditions.

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