Could a system that is basically mechanical, albeit micromechanical, compete with electronic and magnetic devices for storing large volumes of data? Surprisingly, recent research suggests that the answer may be yes. Stranger still, the concept being investigated by IBM and others is not too far removed from that of the phonograph and record player, the once familiar system used for writing and retrieving data to and from revolving disks. But the scale of the once familiar pick-up needle compared with what is now proposed is as an ocean compared with a drop.In the new ultra-compact system for storing digital data developed by IBM researchers, patterns on the surface of a material are traced by points so fine that the impression left by one of them would be one fifty-thousandth the size of the full stop at the end of this sentence. Using technology first developed as the atomic force microscope (AFM) to trace topography down to the scale of individual atoms and molecules can, say IBM researchers, enable data to be stored at densities as high as 1 Tb/in2 — a density ten times higher than today’s most advanced disk drives.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(03)00234-7