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Towards data storage at the single molecule level

The miniaturization of the current technology of storage media is hindered by fundamental limits of quantum mechanics. A new approach consists in using so-called spin-crossover molecules as the smallest possible storage unit. Similar to normal hard drives, these special molecules can save information via their magnetic state. A research team from Kiel University has now managed to successfully place a new class of spin-crossover molecules onto a surface and to improve the molecule’s storage capacity. The storage density of conventional hard drives could therefore theoretically be increased by more than one hundred fold. The study has been published in the scientific journal Nano Letters.

Over the past few years, the building blocks of storage media have gotten ever smaller. But further miniaturization of the current technology is hindered by fundamental limits of quantum mechanics. A new approach consists in using so-called spin-crossover molecules as the smallest possible storage unit. Similar to normal hard drives, these special molecules can save information via their magnetic state. To do so, they have to be placed on surfaces, which is challenging without damaging their ability to save the information. A research team from Kiel University has now not only managed to successfully place a new class of spin-crossover molecules onto a surface, but they have also used interactions which were previously regarded as obstructive to improve the molecule’s storage capacity. The storage density of conventional hard drives could therefore theoretically be increased by more than one hundred fold, and data carriers could be made significantly smaller. The scientists have published their findings in the scientific journal Nano Letters.

Is a switch on or off? Is a statement true or false? Is an answer yes or no? The differentiation between two possibilities is the smallest piece of information that a computer can save. Bits (a word comprised of ‘binary’ and ‘digit’), as the smallest electronic storage unit, are the basic building blocks for all information stored on our hard drives. They are presented as a sequence of two different symbols like 0 and 1, the so-called binary code. Over the past few years, storage media have become ever smaller while their capacity to store information has increased. One Bit on a hard drive now only requires a space of around 10 by 10 nanometres. This is still too big for miniaturising components, however.

“The technology that is currently being used to store data on hard drives now reaches the fundamental limits of quantum mechanics due to the size of the Bit. It cannot get any smaller, from today’s perspective,” says Torben Jasper-Tönnies, doctoral researcher in Professor Richard Berndt’s working group at Kiel University’s Institute of Experimental and Applied Physics. He and his colleagues used a single molecule, which could be employed to encode a Bit, to demonstrate a principle which might just enable even smaller hard drives with more storage in the future. “Our molecule is just one square nanometre in size. Even with this alone, a bit could be encoded in an area hundred times smaller than what is nowadays required,” says his colleague, Dr Manuel Gruber. This would be another step towards shifting the limits of quantum physics in storage technology.

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