Nanotechnology is all about the science and engineering of incredibly small devices, so breakthroughs in information storage density are to be expected. But a team from two U.S. universities has achieved a breakthrough in self-assembling nanotech devices that enables truly amazing data storage options.
The scientists from University of California, Berkeley, and University of Massachusettes Amherst have invented a way of packing an array of polymer molecules tightly together. The polymer chains are chemically different from one other, and form a block copolymer when bunched up: This arrangement is actually self-forming, and creates a tight grid of molecules when viewed from above.
The team’s breakthrough has been to use a feature of sapphire crystal to create vast fields of these blocks–previously an impossible feat, since the blocks break down past a certain scale as disorder kicks in. The sapphire facets are cut and heat-treated which causes them to form nano-scale sawtooth ridges, and when the copolymer grid is formed on these ridges, the scale problem disappears.
As a result, if the molecules were arranged to store electronic data as bits, the nano device represents a data storage capacity of 10 terabits per square inch–1,250 gigabytes of data in an area only slightly bigger than a postage stamp. That’s a storage density some 15 times greater than seen before.
The technology to store and retrieve data on that scale is in its infancy, but will certainly catch up now that the nano-scale storage medium seems possible.
Why do we care about such a breakthrough? For two reasons–our data storage requirements are forever increasing as we apply digital electronics to more aspects of our lives, and conventional digital storage systems will one day not suffice. And secondly, this nanotech breakthrough has implications for other semiconductor chip processes–a self-assembling system like this bypasses the minimum size limits for photolithography. That’s how current chips are made, and self-assembly means that potentially even smaller transistors and chip interconnects could be crafted, creating still more powerful and less power-hungry processor chips. According to Thomas Russell, director of the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center at UMass Amherst, the technology could even enable things like more energy-efficient photovoltaic cells.