Skip to Main Content
Skip Nav Destination

News publications place "A kilobyte rewritable atomic memory" within physics history

29 July 2016
So do physicists, who link a nanotechnology breakthrough to their late colleague Richard Feynman’s vision from a half century ago.

In the July Physics Today, historian of science Matthew Stanley’s summarized the news:

In 1960, U.S. physicist Richard Feynman famously predicted the coming age of nanotechnology in an essay entitled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” Nowhere has this idea proven more powerful than in the realm of data storage, where by continually shrinking the size of bits of data, today’s computer hard disk drives now pack 10,000 times more information than those from just 15 years ago. Now, that march to the bottom may finally be nearing its end. In today’s issue of Nature Nanotechnology researchers report using a scanning tunneling microscope (STM) to store data at the atomic scale. To do so, they evaporated chlorine atoms atop a copper surface, which assembled themselves into a gridlike pattern with a small number of empty spots. The researchers then used the STM to move individual chlorine atoms around, encoding a series of 0s and 1s into a 12x12 array of rectangular blocks. By precisely controlling the dark spots—places missing a chlorine atom—the team encoded 160 words from Feynman’s ... lecture, among other writings. Although the process of reading and writing data with an STM remains too slow to make a useful data storage technology, it shows it’s possible to store as much as 500 terabits—or 62.5 terabytes—of data per 6.5 square centimeters, another 500 times better than today’s hard disk technology.

The scientific paper’s abstract appears at the end of this media report, and a special paywall-vaulting link to the full paper was made available. In the paper itself, the researchers, led by Sander Otte of Delft University of Technology, declare that having “several thousands of single-atom bits represents a significant step forward in the field of atomic-scale electronics.” They add that translating “the two-dimensional storage density presented here to three dimensions, would—assuming a modest vertical pitch of 5 nm—allow the storage of the entire US Library of Congress in a cube 100 µm wide.”

A news report at Nature observed that data storage isn’t the only prospective application. The work, it said, “could pave the way to designing new materials, atom by atom.” The report quoted Chris Lutz, a staff scientist at IBM Research at Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California: “Otte’s research gets people interested in thinking about what we want to do on an atomic scale.”

The research also stirred commercial interest, for example at PC World and the International Business Times. Within hours at AppleInsider, the work’s implications drew energetic attention under the headline “Groundbreaking ‘atomic memory’ could cram unimaginable amounts of data into your iPhone.” The subhead exclaimed, “A new technology for data storage at the atomic level could supplant magnetic and flash media in the future, and yield thousands of terabytes in a single drive—if scientists can perfect it.”

The Wall Street Journal quoted scientists not involved in the research. University of Wisconsin–Madison physics professor emeritus Franz Himpsel sees it as a “breakthrough.” Elke Scheer, a nanoscientist at the University of Konstanz in Germany, marveled, “It’s not just physics. It’s also informatics.”

Informatics found its way into the pervasive history framing. In Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald’s news report began, “When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press he changed the world.” The article repeated a quotation from Otte that had appeared in Gizmodo: “It is as if we have invented the atomic-scale printing press."

But framing by physics history has been much more common in the media coverage, as illustrated by the Economist’s opening lines: “What if ‘we can arrange the atoms the way we want; the very atoms, all the way down’? So asked the physicist Richard Feynman in an influential 1959 lecture called ‘There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom’. This manipulation would mean that information, like text, could be written using atoms themselves.”

So ubiquitous is Feynman’s memory in nanoscience and nanotechnology that in 2009, a Nature Nanotechnology editorial called attention to the journal’s “unwritten rule” that Feynman’s lecture, published as an essay in 1960, “should not be referred to at the start of articles unless absolutely necessary.” The editors stipulated, “It is not that we have anything against Feynman or this lecture—quite the opposite. Rather, our unwritten rule is intended to encourage variety in the introductions of articles, which is why we also discourage references to Moore’s law in opening sentences.”

That editorial reminded readers about Feynman’s historical stature: “Back in 1959, 41-year-old Feynman was one of the leading theoretical physicists in the world, and his work on quantum electrodynamics in the early 1940s would earn him a share of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1965.” The time of his lecture, the editors wrote, “was only six years since Crick and Watson had determined the double-helix structure of DNA, the laser and Silicon Valley were still taking shape, Feynman’s Caltech rival and colleague Murray Gell-Mann had yet to propose the quark model of particle physics, and scanning probe microscopes and carbon nanotubes were still decades away.”

Feynman’s famous lecture, delivered at a Caltech meeting of the American Physical Society in December 1959 and published as an essay in 1960, addressed the possibilities of extreme miniaturization. Feynman began with historical framing of his own:

I imagine experimental physicists must often look with envy at men like Kamerlingh Onnes, who discovered a field like low temperature, which seems to be bottomless and in which one can go down and down. Such a man is then a leader and has some temporary monopoly in a scientific adventure. Percy Bridgman, in designing a way to obtain higher pressures, opened up another new field and was able to move into it and to lead us all along. The development of ever higher vacuum was a continuing development of the same kind.

I would like to describe a field, in which little has been done, but in which an enormous amount can be done in principle. This field is not quite the same as the others in that it will not tell us much of fundamental physics (in the sense of, “What are the strange particles?”) but it is more like solid-state physics in the sense that it might tell us much of great interest about the strange phenomena that occur in complex situations. Furthermore, a point that is most important is that it would have an enormous number of technical applications.

What I want to talk about is the problem of manipulating and controlling things on a small scale.

Pervading the current media coverage—in fact dominating it, as shown by thumbnail images accompanying Google News search results—are copies of Figure 3 from the scientific paper by Otte and colleagues. It’s a scanning tunneling microscope image showing “a 1,016-byte atomic memory, written to” this passage from Feynman’s lecture:

But I am not afraid to consider the final question as to whether, ultimately—in the great future—we can arrange the atoms the way we want; the very atoms, all the way down! What would happen if we could arrange the atoms one by one the way we want them (within reason, of course; you can’t put them so that they are chemically unstable, for example).

Up to now, we have been content to dig in the ground to find minerals. We heat them and we do things on a large scale with them, and we hope to get a pure substance with just so much impurity, and so on. But we must always accept some atomic arrangement that nature gives us. We haven’t got anything, say, with a “checkerboard” arrangement, with the impurity atoms exactly arranged 1000 angstroms apart, or in some other particular pattern.

Many news outlets carried this scanning tunneling microscope image of a kilobyte atomic memory written to a passage from a Richard Feynman lecture. Credit: Image courtesy of TU Delft

Many news outlets carried this scanning tunneling microscope image of a kilobyte atomic memory written to a passage from a Richard Feynman lecture. Credit: Image courtesy of TU Delft

That image also dominates the first page—and, for that matter, the headline—of the explanatory Nature Nanotechnology essay “A picture worth a thousand bytes.” Author Steven C. Erwin of the Center for Computational Materials Science at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC, begins the piece with still more historical framing:

A great scientific image, whether of the distant cosmos or of the world around us, can stick in our visual memory and stimulate the imagination. The scanning tunnelling microscope (STM) has provided several memorable images—most famously, the letters ‘IBM’ painstakingly crafted from 35 xenon atoms by Don Eigler in 1990 and the quantum corral created in his lab a few years later.

Erwin then adds: “To this list we can now add the kilobyte atomic memory.”

- - - - - - - - -

Abstract from the scientific paper “A kilobyte rewritable atomic memory”:

F. E. Kalff, M. P. Rebergen, E. Fahrenfort, J. Girovsky, R. Toskovic, J. L. Lado, J. Fernández-Rossier and A. F. Otte

The advent of devices based on single dopants, such as the single-atom transistor, the single-spin magnetometer and the single-atom memory, has motivated the quest for strategies that permit the control of matter with atomic precision. Manipulation of individual atoms by low-temperature scanning tunnelling microscopy provides ways to store data in atoms, encoded either into their charge state, magnetization state or lattice position. A clear challenge now is the controlled integration of these individual functional atoms into extended, scalable atomic circuits. Here, we present a robust digital atomic-scale memory of up to 1 kilobyte (8,000 bits) using an array of individual surface vacancies in a chlorine-terminated Cu(100) surface. The memory can be read and rewritten automatically by means of atomic-scale markers and offers an areal density of 502 terabits per square inch, outperforming state-of-the-art hard disk drives by three orders of magnitude. Furthermore, the chlorine vacancies are found to be stable at temperatures up to 77 K, offering the potential for expanding large-scale atomic assembly towards ambient conditions.


Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and was a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

Close Modal

or Create an Account

Close Modal
Close Modal