To make the memory device, the researchers used a specialized microscope with a copper-coated tip. The tip of the microscope is not only used to see atoms, but also manipulate them.
Using the microscope's tip, the scientists arranged chlorine atoms on a flat piece of copper to a predetermined location. The spaces between the atoms are called "holes."
After crafting a special kind of computer language, the scientists were able to write information in the "holes" between the precisely arranged atoms.
The tip of the microscope was then used to read the flat piece of copper, interpreting the chlorine atoms and holes between them as ones and zeros -- essentially a binary code that is the basis of all digital information.
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To demonstrate that the atomic storage device could be rewritten over, Otte and her team first saved a small portion of Charles Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" and then replaced it with 160 words from a 1959 lecture by physicist Richard Feynman. In the lecture, Feynman speaks of a future where people save information on atom-sized devices.
Although this research represents a giant step into the world of shrinking electronics, it's too impractical for everyday use. At the moment, writing data is too slow. It took about a week to record the bit of text from Darwin's book.
And the copper plate with the chlorine atoms needs to be kept in a cold environment or the data disappears.
Otte and his team are aware of the challenges and working toward solutions. They plan to investigate other metal surfaces as well as other kind of atoms.