IBM labs unveil super-dense storage

Researchers have created a storage device that holds up to a trillion bits of information, as the push to find new storage technologies rolls on.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
4 min read
IBM researchers have created a storage device that holds up to a trillion bits of information, or about 25 million textbook pages in a postage stamp-size area, as the push to find new storage technologies rolls on.

The experimental prototype, part of an ongoing nanotechnology-research project code-named Millipede, is a chip containing more than 1,000 heated spikes that can make, or read, tiny indentations in a polymer film, said Peter Vettiger, the Millipede project leader.

Like punch cards in the computers of old, the pattern of the indentations--measuring 10 nanometers each--essentially is the digitized version of the data meant to be stored. The minute size of the indentations, though, means that Millipede chips are 20 times more densely packed with information than current hard drives. With this, cell phones could hold up to 10GB of data.

Just as important, Millipede will likely be relatively inexpensive to manufacture because the chips can be made through existing manufacturing techniques. A heartier 4,000-spike prototype that can be connected to handheld devices will come out a year from now with commercial products potentially arriving in a few years.

"There is not a single step in fabrication that needs to be invented," Vettiger said. "I could imagine that if everything works well, then in the late 2005 timeframe something could be available."

Several companies are trying to come up with replacements for hard disks, the universal storage medium for PCs, and flash memory, which stores data inside cell phones. Hitachi has proposed a similar polymer-punch method, but it does not involve heating the needle. Intel, meanwhile, is working on Ovonics, a type of memory made out of the same material as CD-ROM disks. Start-up Matrix Semiconductor has also developed 3D record-once flash memory.

Hard drives and flash memory still work, but these new techniques promise far greater storage data, allowing consumers to store several movies on a personal video recorder, but in the space the size of a sugar cube.

"This technology is a real alternative to rotating storage and systems that can be affected" by heat, shock or external factors, said Richard Doherty, president of research firm The Envisioneering Group. "In nanotechnology there is no one with more patents than IBM."

Heat is at the heart of Millipede. Each of the spikes on a Millipede chip contains a heating resistor and sharp tip. To make an indentation, the resistor warms up the tip to 400 degrees Celsius as well as the polymer recording media, located less than a micron away. The hot tip is then plunged into the film, which creates a dent.

To read stored data, the tip is heated only to 300 degrees Celsius, Vettiger said. This allows the tip to interpret the pattern embedded in the film without changing the pattern of the indentations. Unlike hard drives, where a needle moves to locate data, in Millipede the tips stay stationary and the film moves.

"The number of tips working in parallel determine the read-write speed," Vettiger said.

Millipede chips can also be re-used by reheating the film and letting it ooze to horizontal.

Despite the extreme temperatures, the experimental prototype is relatively stable, Vettiger stated. The tip remains at 400 degrees Celsius for only a few milliseconds. The small size of the chips also means that little electricity is required to spike temperatures in this manner.

External vibrations, product packaging and heat from other internal components are all issues, but not insurmountable ones, Vettiger said.

Millipede is also part of IBM's efforts to promote nanotechnology, the science of building chips and other devices out of components that measure 100 nanometers or less.

Today's semiconductors generally consist of transistors and components that measure 180 to 130 nanometers in length. The 100-nanometer barrier is more significant than other milestones (like the jump from 180 to 130 nanometers) because the behavior of matter begins to change at that level, according to several researchers.

"The nano scale is very different and unique--the properties of matter change with size or shape," said R. Stanley Williams, a Hewlett-Packard fellow and director of the company's Quantum Science Research Laboratories. "Electrons no longer behave like rocks as they do in current electronic devices. Electrons behave as waves."

Carbon nanotubes, one of the most widely discussed nanotechnology developments--and one that is often used synonymously with nanotechnology--may not hit the market for another 15 to 20 years.

By then, though, companies will release products made of silicon that fit the definition of nanotechnology. Intel and most other leading semiconductor manufacturers, for instance, will release chips next year containing parts that measure 90 nanometers on average.

Millipede chips are an example of silicon nanotechnology. "The fabrication processes we require to build these chips are all derived from semiconductor fabrication techniques," Vettiger said.