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IBM lets Millipede storage out for a stroll

The prototype technology works like a punch card machine and can fit huge amounts of data into a tiny space. Photos: Millipede packs a punch

HANNOVER, Germany--IBM tantalized chip aficionados at CeBit here last week with a storage device that it says can achieve data densities of more than 1 terabit per square inch.

The MEMS prototype can hold the equivalent of 25 DVDs on an area the size of a postage stamp, IBM said. MEMS stands for micro-electrical-mechanical system.

IBM researchers in Zurich, Switzerland, have affectionately named the device the Millipede because it has thousands of very fine silicon tips that can "punch" individual bit patterns onto a thin film of polymer. The Millipede uses the tips to create pits, or bit patterns, approximately 10 nanometers wide to represent the stored data. IBM says that the principle is similar to the older technology of data punch cards, but the Millipede can also erase and rewrite data.

"A single Millipede can hold 600,000 digital camera images on something the size of a postage stamp, which is quite exciting," said an IBM spokesman. "I think this represents a new and realistic way to store huge amounts of data on a small device."

A Millipede has more than 4,000 tips within a square that's 6.4 millimeters on a side. The device works by heating the tips and stamping a pattern onto the polymer.

IBM said in 2002 that it was working on the Millipede. Hewlett-Packard also is developing tiny memory chips that store large quantities of data. At CeBit last week, it demonstrated the mechanics of the chip through a video microscope that showed how the polymer surface moves across the tips.

The device is suited for mobile gadgets such as digital cameras, mobile phones and USB sticks, IBM said. However, it is still in the research stage and will not be available for at least two years.

"We're some way from making it available to the consumer," IBM added. "We've no plans to bring it to market for a couple of years."

Dan Ilett of ZDNet UK reported from Hannover, Germany.