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Listen to a Mozart lullaby from the world's tiniest nanopiano

The first ever optically encoded audio recording off a non-magnetic plasmonic nanostructure could mean big things for storage. And it's "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."

University of Illinois/Chen et al.

Nanoart can welcome a new fellow into the world -- a microscopic "piano" no bigger than the width of a human hair. The tiny piano is capable of playing tunes and may also have some pretty interesting implications in the field of data storage.

The chip's structure contains gold bowtie-shaped nanoantennas supported on microcsopic pillars, or pBNAs. These pBNAs have photographic film properties -- as opposed to magnetic film, which is used in conventional analog data storage -- giving it a capacity around 5,600 times larger in comparison.

It is this capacity that the research team, led by University of Illinois associate professor of mechanical science and engineering Kimani Toussaint, exploited to turn the chip into a musical keyboard. The pBNAs can store sound information as either a temporally varying intensity waveform or a frequency varying intensity waveform.

Using this technique, the team was able to store eight basic musical notes on the chip. The team recorded the audio signals by using a microscope to scan a sound-modulated laser beam directly onto the pBNAs. The same microscope then imaged the recorded waveform onto a digital camera -- thereby enabling playback of the notes in the order of Mozart's "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."

All right, so the timbre of the piano won't be winning any prizes -- but it could open up some new avenues for analog data storage.

"For example," Toussaint said, "one can consider applying this type of nanotechnology to enhancing the niche, but still important, analog technology used in the area of archival storage such as using microfiche. In addition, our work holds potential for on-chip, plasmonic-based information processing."

And, according to the paper's first author, former postdoctoral researcher in Toussaint's PROBE laboratory Hao Chen, it could have implications in digital data storage, too.

"Originating from a plasmon-induced thermal effect, well-controlled nanoscale morphological changes allow as much as a 100-nm spectral shift from the nanoantennas. By employing this spectral degree-of-freedom as an amplitude coordinate, the storage capacity can be improved," he said.

"Moreover, although our audio recording focused on analog data storage, in principle it is still possible to transform to digital data storage by having each bowtie serve as a unit bit 1 or 0. By modifying the size of the bowtie, it's feasible to further improve the storage capacity."

The full paper, "Plasmon-Assisted Audio Recording," published in the journal Scientific Reports, can be found online.